The Vampire Doll (1970) review

Introduction

While he made many movies and drama, Michio Yamamoto will forever be known for his Bloodthirsty Trilogy. In 2018, his monumental trilogy, his unique interpretations of European gothic horror from a Japanese perspective, was released on blu-ray by Arrow Video. Does have the first film in the trilogy, The Vampire Doll, retained its appeal or has its bewitching effect turned to ashes by the light of modern cinema?

Review

Returning from his overseas business trip, Kazuhiko Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura) immediately sets out to visit his girlfriend and fiancée Yuko Nonomura (Yukiko Kobayashi) at her home in an isolated rural area. At her home, he is informed by Yuko’s mother, Shidu (Yoko Minazake), that she has passed away two weeks ago in a car-accident.

Eight days later, Keiko Sagawa (Kayo Matsuo) wakes up from a terrible dream. This dream fuels her worry about her brother who has not come back nor tried to contact her. She asks her fiancé Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) to drive her to Yuko’s house in an attempt to find him. Shidu sadly informs her that her brother left four days ago, but Keiko suspects there is more to the story.

The Vampire Doll (1970) by Michio Yamamoto

The Vampire Doll remains, despite its age, a compelling and unsettling experience. The first element that ensures that Yamamoto’s narrative is still able to satisfy the contemporary spectator is its well-structured narrative. Ei Ogawa and Hiroshi Nagano crafted a narrative that pulls the spectator in with its sense of mystery while alarming him with unheimlich elements. The desire to know more is represented within the narrative by the character of Keiko. It is her desire to find her brother that sets her on the path to unravel the hidden and unsettling truth that marks the Nonomura family, a tragic truth that seems to be as much about Yuko’s fatherly origin as it is about Genzo (Kaku Takashina), the supposedly faithful servant of the family.

Hiroshi represents, in a certain sense, the desire to escape that what is unheimlich.  He functions, within the narrative, as the voice of reason and sense, gullibly accepting the explanations of Shidu and refusing to accept Keiko’s signifiers as truth. It is by spouting reason that Hiroshi aims to protect himself and his fiancée from the non-sensical elements that disturb the atmosphere in the house. By hiding within the language of sense, he can avoid to see surges of non-sense for what they truly are, as signs of the intrusion of the other-worldly entities and of the attempt to keep the blood-thirsty intrusion safely hidden within the shadows.     

The Vampire Doll (1970) by Michio Yamamoto

Yet, the narrative structure only comes to its full right due to the atmosphere that pervades the visuals. In truth, what pulls the spectator in the story of The Vampire Doll is not the structure as such, but the exquisite crafted atmosphere. The unsettling atmosphere of The Vampire Doll is mainly dictated by the thoughtful lightning-design. The enduring struggle between frail light and invading darkness that plays out on the screen gives shadows their ominous dimension and fuels the feeling that something evil lurks in those places where light cannot reach (Cine-note 1).

Yet, the atmosphere does not solely depend on the lighting-design. On the one hand, Yamamoto thoughtfully integrates visual elements, like the refined politeness of Yuko’s mother, the rudeness of the deaf and mute servant, the repetition of blueish lighting strikes, dead bloody birds, … etc., in his composition to keep the spectator ill at ease. On the other hand, sound-elements, like momentary silences within conversations, the howling sound of the wind, the crashing sound of thunder, the subtle weeping that lingers in the house, the ringing of a phone, loud breathing, dripping of water, …etc., beautifully intensify the unsettling atmosphere by elegantly suggesting that something horrifying resides within the shadows (Sound-note 1).  

The Vampire Doll (1970) by Michio Yamamoto

The musical accompaniment by Riichirô Manabe is also utilized thoughtfully (Music-note 1). Either the musical pieces complement the creation of the unsettling atmosphere or they function as fleeting decorations that highlight the ominous character of certain visual elements, be it the sudden sight of half-eaten birds, the facial expression that foreshadows tragedy, or an invasive flashback to a ghostly appearance.      

It is the fluid combination of visual, sound, and musical elements that ensures that the unsettling atmospheres is kept lingering even when the tension between light and shadow is less profound. Yet, the effectivity of these compositional elements also depends the performances of the cast. The performances, which are all great, do not merely complement the horror atmospherics but enables the atmosphere to engage and unsettle the spectator (Cine-note 1).  

The Vampire Doll is, in short, a horror classic. What makes Yamamoto’s vampire horror narrative so deeply satisfying after all these years is, in truth, not its effective narrative structure, but its reliance on generating atmosphere. Sounds, music, performances, and darkish visuals all blend beautifully together to deliver an unsettling but enchanting account of vampirism in Japan.

Notes

Sound-note 1: One should not minimize the importance of decorating the visuals with the sound of the wind. These howling sounds do not merely give the darkish narrative spaces their unsettling quality. If these sounds succeed in making the spectator uneasy it is because the wind reverberates the unsettling emptiness and ominous silence that marks these dark narrative spaces.

Music-note 1: In some instances, the play with musical decoration takes over the function ofthe howling wind. By decorating certain moments with music as well as by radically cutting out the musical decoration for dramatic purposes, Yamamoto also succeeds in highlighting the uncomfortable character of silences and uneasy emptiness that pervades the western-style house.

Cine-note 1: This ongoing fight between light and darkness also ensures that many shot-compositions attain a pleasing geometrical tension and are able to visually please the spectator.  

Cine-note 2: In some instances, shakiness is utilized to highlight the uneasiness of the character and allow the uneasiness that, due to the engaging atmosphere of the narrative, has taken root within the spectator temporarily blossom. To heighten the tension in certain sequences, Yamamoto also utilizes, in some cases, zoom-in movement.  

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