Director Michiro Yamaoto’s second entry in the “bloodthirsty trilogy”, a name derived from the Japanese title, is a poor successor to Vampire Doll (1970). Despite not measuring up to the 1970 movie, though, it’s not entirely uninteresting on its own merits although it does miss the mark on multiple levels. From a story that lacks surprises, to flat characters supported by uninteresting acting, to being topped off with only a decent score from Riichio Manabe, there is very little to praise here. What does stand out is Rokuro Nishigaki’s fantastic camera work that manages to carry the picture during several sequences, creating a production that’s visually appealing despite its numerous weaknesses.
In terms of the plot, the movie starts out on the coast, as a young girl chases her dog Leo. The small animal finds shelter in an isolated mansion as the girl follows the dog inside. Once there, she spies a dead woman at the piano and a tall, yellow eyed man with blood dripping from his mouth.
Outside her house, Akiko Kashigawi takes her dog Leo for a walk to meet Kyusaka, a local handyman, at the rest house to see if he can fix her door. The two are interrupted, though, by a delivery truck that drops off a large box. Kyusaka begins to lug the crate up to the house and agrees to fix the door after supper, allowing Akiko to be on her way. Once the crate is at the rest house, Kyusaka opens it to reveal a white coffin. Meanwhile, Akiko and her sister, Natsuko, are preparing dinner as Akiko shows off her latest painting: a large yellow eye as a sunset. She says it’s inspired by a childhood nightmare. With the meal ready, Saeki Takashi, Akiko’s boyfriend, arrives to eat with them. During this time, Kyusaka opens the coffin and, much to his relief, nothing is inside; however, the kind man is suddenly grabbed from behind and attacked. At Akiko’s home, the three finish dinner and say farewell to Saeki as Akiko notes how odd it is that Kyusaka never showed. Akiko then goes to the rest house to see if she can locate the handyman, but instead sees a tall man lurking in the shadows. She calls out for his name, but he doesn’t answer. Akiko, recalling her vision, panics and flees from the house.
The next day, Saeki, who is a doctor at the local hospital, receives an unconscious patient without any notable sign of injury or disease, just two holes in her neck and a massive loss of blood. The girl was discovered at Lake Fujimi, near where Akiko lives. Meanwhile, Leo has gone missing and Akiko goes out in the woods to locate him. She manages to find the dog, but it has been killed as Kyusaka stands nearby. The handyman then knocks Akiko out and drags her off to the rest house. Once there, the tall stranger emerges from the shadows to meet her, but he and Kyusaka are scared off as a car flashes its headlights through the window and pulls up to the house. It turns out that the car belongs to two campers looking for a boat, but Akiko, still frightened, leaves with the two travelers. She then goes to her house, only to find the residence empty. Worried, she calls Saeki, only to be interrupted as Natsuko suddenly appears. Later that night, though, Natsuko leaves the house in secret, meeting with the tall stranger who proceeds to draw blood from her neck.
The following morning, Saeki arrives and he and Akiko go off to the rest house to confront Kyusaka. However, the handyman denies the incident and tells them that the stranger is his new master, before asking them to leave. The pair goes back to Akiko’s home, where Natsuko tells them that the hospital called asking Saeki to work the night shift. Akiko sees her boyfriend to his car, but once she returns inside she finds Natsuko and the stranger waiting for her. In the meantime, Kyusaka, who was hiding in the backseat of Saeki’s car, emerges and tries to strangle the doctor. Saeki manages to break free as he stops the vehicle and runs out. The handyman, wielding a wrench, runs out after him, but lightning strikes the tool and kills him. Back at the house, the dark stranger is giving chase to Akiko through the residence. Thankfully, Saeki arrives, causing the stranger to disappear.
With the menace gone, the two take Natsuko to the hospital, but, after a morbid request to be cremated, she dies on the way. Saeki, on a hunch, ignores the request and orders her autopsy. He then uses hypnosis on Akiko and discovers that her “nightmare” was in fact a repressed event that occurred in her childhood. Unfortunately, during this session, Natsuko drains the blood of the nurse looking over her and escapes. The pair then decide to travel to Akiko’s hometown and walk the same path she did in her repressed memory. Their efforts lead them to the mansion where they discover the body of an old man, the man who saved her from that place as a child. As it turns out, the elder gentleman is the vampire’s father and had his blood drained by his son. This revelation is interrupted, though, by the stranger, causing Saeki and the vampire to fight as Natsuko and Akiko stand watching. It appears that the dark stranger is about to finish the doctor off, just as his father grabs his foot. This causes the vampire to lose his balance and fall, impaling himself on a spike below. The injury kills the dark stranger and releases Natsuko from his hold, allowing her to die in peace.
As a whole, there aren’t a whole lot of surprises to be had in the story. It generally lacks the atmosphere which made the previous entry, Vampire Doll (1970), work so well. One thing that would have helped is if they showed the tranquility of the lakeside area a little more. One gets a slight sense of this with the kind handyman, but the writing rushes past this to introduce the vampire as quickly as possible, not bothering to develop the cast beforehand. It’s a lost opportunity to make turning Akiko’s friends and family against her seem even more vile. To the film’s credit, Lake of Dracula is actually frightening during the first half hour of its run time. The scare factor all but dries up past that point, though, as the movie as a whole begins its downward spiral. There are a couple of laughable moments during the film too. An example would be when Saeki tells Kyusaka that he is making it hard to drive while he is strangling the doctor, instead of immediately stopping on the abandoned road. The subsequent lightning that strikes the handyman feels a little too convenient as well. The scene as a whole is lacking too as there are no special effects to help the scene along as the lightning is represented by the screen flashing. The hypnosis portion of the film is pretty ludicrous too. I can understand they wanted to create a mysterious sequence at the start of the film that would be linked up later, but the execution is lacking. Having one of the film’s medical doctors perform hypnosis on the main character seems awkward and rushed in its approach. The use of hypnotism feels odd too, considering the first entry in the “bloodthirsty” trilogy used hypnosis as the source of the movie’s dilemma. Still the film’s climax, Saeki vs. the vampire, is riveting, at least at the start. For this sequence the stranger bursts through a stain glass window to cut off their escape and easily tosses around the doctor. However, the scene drags on, as Akiko refuses to do anything while Natsuko appears to have fallen in a plot hole somewhere.
As for the character development, it’s pretty weak. Akiko, the film’s lead, is the stereotypical female character in the horror genre. What this means is that one can expect Akiko to never save herself and stand idly by, without lifting a muscle, while her boyfriend is beaten nearly to death. I was generally surprised to see the stereotype applied here, after Keiko, a much more independent female character, appeared in the director’s previous horror film: Vampire Doll (1970). Although I guess Akiko’s “miraculous escape” should be mentioned, even though I would imagine this was more of a plot hole then anything. The scene in question occurs as Akiko is in the grasp of the vampire in one scene, until Saeki arrives in the house and Akiko suddenly appears running down the stairs in the next scene. On one positive note, it at least appears that they tried to flesh out Akiko just a little bit here, adding in the sibling rivalry angle with Natsuko. Although, honestly, it’s not executed that well. In fact, I didn’t even realize they were sisters until half way through the film when Natsuko mentions their parents. Up to that point I assumed they were just roommates.
The other lead here is Saeki, the doctor, who is the film’s “hero” although he isn’t structured well as one. I’d be surprised if anyone doesn’t harbor at least a little resentment toward him after he denies Natsuko’s wish to be cremated, based on a “hunch” of his. Of course his hunch, that this is the work of vampires and that she will be revived as one, is correct, but the lone nurse who has to prepare the body for the autopsy ends up suffering as a victim. It’s a series of events that the viewer sees coming a mile away, but can’t believe that Saeki doesn’t, considering what he suspected. The movie makes the character seem downright crazy though, considering his hunch and all that he has learned, when he finally confronts the vampire and claims he’s just a madman whose slaves are nothing more than the work of a “hypnotic pheromone”. So… what gives? Perhaps he’s just trying to psych himself up to go toe-to-toe with him. Regardless, the intention is never clear and the sequence seems odd, unless this was an homage to the plot for Vampire Doll (1970). As for the rest of the characters: flat, with not a notable candidate among them to discuss. The only one of them that can get away with being mysterious is the film’s vampire, too.
In regards to the acting, some of the performances are serviceable, but they don’t lend themselves to make the picture enjoyable. Midori Fujita plays the film’s lead role, Akiko. To sum up her performance: Fujita is pretty undeserving of helming any production. She has the whining aspect of the character down, but that’s about it. Her acting is pretty much summed up when she tells her sister of Leo’s death: clutching a nearby beam, before turning around and throwing her head back to deliver the news; a delivery which is about as over dramatized as they get. Sanae Emi plays Natsuko here, whose performance is a mixed bag. She has the chirpy, carefree, aspect down, but struggles to convincingly display any other emotions, particularly during her flat read of the scene where she rejoices that her sister will become like her, another servant of the dark stranger. Moving to the supporting characters, Kaku Takashina, as Kyusaka, shouldn’t go unmentioned here. He did a fabulous job as Genzo in Vampire Doll (1970), and shows his range here by playing the friendly handyman. Unfortunately, Kyusaka is bitten rather early on, and reverts to a fairly evil character for the remainder of the picture, which Takashina still portrays with a good level of expertise but it’s not the type of role that he is unfamiliar with. Shin Kishida plays the movie’s nameless vampire and his performance is good when he is being silent or delivering lines of dialogue. Sadly, he gets a little silly when he roars, particularly during the climax where he seems to slip in and out of character while fighting.
In regards to the music, Riichiro Manabe returns to score Lake of Dracula, and ends up churning out a career high, although the score is still plagued with some standout bad themes. A couple of the cues here sound remarkably similar to his work that same year for Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) too. Even the composer’s odd “frog croaking” style of music is used here, which fit when related to the smog born monster but feel entirely out of place in this vampire film. Still Manabe’s score here is actually the best of the trilogy, as the main theme is nice along with several other cues. In general, it just seems to grow on the viewer with repeated listening.
When everything else about the production seems to go astray, cinematographer Rokuro Nishigaki manages to save the production from being an unmemorable affair. In fact, the movie’s camera work is really commendable. In particular the movie’s breath taking use of color and the great camera set ups. This includes the wide shot of the beach at the start, a great cold open that displays Nishigaki’s talent. The exterior shot of the mansion during the opening is also impressive, even if one can tell it’s shot on a set. The movie also does really well introducing the vampire. The shot of Shin Kishida, with blood dripping from his mouth, is a very iconic shot. In fact, it’s the most iconic shot of the Toho vampire films.
In conclusion, Lake of Dracula runs a gambit of complaints. Nearly every aspect of the film seems to be lacking in one way or another, save Nishigaki’s camera work. However, there is something oddly alluring about the movie. My initial reaction was extreme disappointment, but the film grew on me, as Lake of Dracula is one of those movies that actually benefits from repeated viewings. Not a good film, but one that will likely earn an audience all the same.