Vampire Doll (1970)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (3.5/5)
August 18th, 2005 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

The first entry in the "bloodthirsty" trilogy, Michio Yamamoto's Vampire Doll is an aspiring and atmospheric horror film. In fact, most aspects of the movie are accomplished exceedingly well. The story itself, while not too complex, unfolds in a manner that makes the plot interesting. Granted, the characters aren't very deep, but the acting here tends to be top notch and compensates rather well. Unfortunately, the film's dark spot is Riichiro Manabe, a composer who should be infamous to most Toho enthusiasts, as he churns out another poor score here that, thankfully, the film is able to rise above.

Vampire Doll's story starts out with Kazuhiko Sagawa in route to Tadeshina to meet his finance, Yuko Nomura. Once at Yuko's house, Sagawa meets Yuko's mother, Shido Nomura, and Genzo, her mute butler. He is also given the news that Yuko has died after a fatal car accident that occurred two weeks prior. Devastated by the news, Sagawa spends the night at the Nomura house. As dusk hits, the young man begins to hear a strange wailing sound emanating from inside the house. While investigating, he swears he sees Yuko until he is struck in the back of the head and slips out of consciousness. Upon awaking, he tells Mrs. Nomura what he saw, but she assures him it was only a dream. Still restless, Sagawa returns to his room and peaks out the window, only to spy Yuko running away from the house, he quickly leaves his room and gives pursuit. Sagawa finds Yuko near her grave, and the two embrace.

Several days later, Keiko, Kazuhiko's sister, grows worried as she hasn't heard from her brother in the past eight days. Together with her boyfriend Hiroshi Tagaki, the pair travel to Tadeshina to see if they can locate him. Upon arriving, they hear the dreadful news that Yuko had passed away, while Mrs. Nomura tells them that Kazuhiko had left four days ago. Keiko asks to see Yuko's grave, and the pair go off alone to the spot. While there, Keiko tells Hiroshi that she doesn't trust Mrs. Nomura, and believes that her brother is still here. Hiroshi reluctantly agrees, and removes the car's fan belt so it appears they have car trouble, and are allowed to spend the night. Later, after dinner, the two hear an odd wailing noise emanating from the house's lower levels. Hiroshi goes to investigate, but is discovered by Mrs. Nomura who assures him it's only the wind. That night, after everyone is asleep, the pair go off to explore the grounds. Hiroshi comes across Genzo in the courtyard, as he attempts to knock him out until Mrs. Nomura intervenes. Keiko, on the other hand, hears the odd wailing noise as Yuko corners the young girl in her room, although Keiko is saved when she accidentally knocks over a light fixture, which blinds Yuko temporarily. Mrs. Nomura and Hiroshi find her shortly afterwards, while Yuko is nowhere to be found, and they assure her it was only a nightmare.

The next day, Hiroshi fixes the car and the two are off, but Keiko still insists that something isn't right. So they visit the coroner's office and Yamaguchi, the doctor who declared her deceased, and learn of the family's grave history: how a burglar had broken in and murdered everyone in the house except Genzo and Mrs. Nomura, who later gave birth to Yuko. Strangely enough, the doctor believes Keiko about seeing Yuko the night before, as Yamaguchi tells of his own experiences with the occult during the war, where we swore he saw a fallen soldier's specter. The pair then decides to go their separate ways with Keiko returning to the house while Hiroshi meets the gravedigger who buried Yuko. The laborer then offers to dig her back out for a fee, and Hiroshi agrees. Keiko's exploration of the house leads to trouble, though, as Mrs. Nomura locks her in one of the rooms. Yamaguchi arrives at the house, following claims that Keiko had gone insane, and sedates the girl. Meanwhile, Hiroshi and the gravedigger have just uncovered the coffin. To their surprise, only a dummy pops out when opened; however, the gravedigger becomes spooked and starts to run off, only to run into Yuko. Hiroshi hears him scream off in the distance, but arrives too late, as the man is already dead. However, he does see Yuko and begins to follow her, until Genzo leaps out and tries to kill the young man. The two get into a brief struggle, which leads them to the edge of a cliff where Genzo tries to push Hiroshi off, only to fall to his own death instead.

Following the short skirmish, Hiroshi finds their car hidden nearby, and rushes off to the house, now worried about Keiko. Inside, he meets Mrs. Nomura and tells her what they found in the coffin, while demanding to see Keiko. Unfortunately, Mrs. Nomura is still uncooperative, but starts to slowly explain what is happening to Yuko. How, when death was about to overtake her, the young girl was hypnotized, creating her twisted second personality and leaving Yuko in her present undead state. Yamaguchi then emerges, announcing that he was the one to have hypnotized her. He also explains that he was the one to have killed Mrs. Nomura's family all those years ago, as he had loved her before the war but came back to find she had been living a life with someone else. The doctor also reveals that Yuko is, in fact, his daughter. Unfortunately, while making these revelations, Yamaguchi is beginning to hypnotize Hiroshi. Thankfully, the doctor's efforts are lost when Keiko, after finding the corpse of her brother and Yuko, screams from one of the lower levels where she was being kept. Hiroshi quickly snaps to and runs down to meet her. The two then try to flee, until they hear a gunshot and turn to see the doctor holding them at gunpoint. However, the doctor's threat is interrupted by the appearance of Yuko, who quickly rushes Yamaguchi and slashes his throat, killing him. Yuko then turns to attack Keiko and Hiroshi, but, with the doctor's demise, the trance over Yuko is broken. The young girl then falls to the ground and begins to wither and die, as the evil in the house has finally been vanquished.

All in all, the plot isn't overly complex, but the nonlinear reveal and the mysterious establishing of the situation at the start makes it interesting to watch. Vampire Doll, overall, feels like a classic horror film. The countryside setting and minimal number of characters work great to weave together a feeling of isolation, while it's also difficult to tell which of the movie's characters one can trust. The doctor, for example, seems like he's going to rescue Keiko when he later emerges, although it's later revealed that he is actually the root of the entire problem. The Yuko character is also effective here as the antagonist, as she's frightening while she also evokes sympathy from the viewer. It's also nice that this film doesn't rely on surprise-oriented scenes to scare the viewer, as Vampire Doll instead builds on the atmosphere. There aren't a lot of genuine scares to be had though, as the film is more unnerving than anything else. Yuko's wailing sound is good example of this, as it's a fairly creepy sound that is effective throughout the entire movie. The film also features very little gore, but what is here is effective and credible, such as Yuko slashing the neck of a raven, which looks disturbingly realistic. In fact, the entire visual production side of things looks good, save the overly fake bats that look like they were culled directly from Space Amoeba (1970). I suppose it shouldn't go unnoted, though, that the movie doesn't actually contain any vampires in the traditional sense. Yuko, the film's undead character, has no fangs, nor does she suck the blood from her victims. She is called a vampire during the course of the film, but doesn't show the normal tendencies of them.

Unfortunately, the film's character development isn't as strong as it could be. It's easy to relate what Keiko and Hiroshi are feeling, but they aren't entirely deep characters that one grows an attachment with. Hiroshi tends to fare the better of the two, as his notable reluctance and overall good nature make him hard not to like. That's not to say Keiko is a bad character, and it's nice to see her jump to some conclusions that make complete sense to the viewer in contrast to some entries in the genre where characters seem to stumble around when the obvious is right in front of them. Overall, though, not much of the character is explored, and the only thing one really gets a sense of is her desire to discover the mystery behind her brother's disappearance. As for the supporting cast, not much to dissect, but that works well in the story as most are either fodder for Yuko or are intended to be mysterious.

Even though the character development isn't spectacular, the acting showcased in the film tends to be great. Kayo Matsuo, as Keiko, is the film's main character. Overall, her acting tends to be good, as she is able to convincingly portray her character's emotions during the course of the film. Granted, she's not the best at screaming, which is demanded a couple of times here, but does it well enough that it's not something that stands out negatively either. The other lead is Akira Nakao, as the good-natured boyfriend, who gives a great performance. It's surprising too that the actor didn't find more work in his youth, as Nakao is energetic when he needs to be while his fear in the film feels genuine. Yoko Minakaze as Ms. Nomura gives an excellent portrayal here as well, as her character feels distant from everything, which gives the viewer that feeling that something isn't right from her first scene. To her credit, Minakaze doesn't show a lot of emotion here, but her inner thoughts are sometimes apparent, such as a fake smile that subtly changes into a grimace. The center focus in the film, though, is Yuko, portrayed by Yukiko Kobayashi. All in all, Kobayashi does a flawless job given the role. Granted, she barely has any lines during the course of the film, but she gives a chilling performance as the film's undead character while being eerily alluring at the same time, showing off extraordinary physical acting talent. Nearly every scene she is in, save the two flashbacks, is noticeably unnerving, particularly when she gives her disturbing smile. Rounding out the notable performances is Jun Usami as the film's twisted doctor. Usami does pretty well here with the material he is given, he seems inviting when he is first introduced in the film, as even after his morbid tale about the undead solider he ends the conversation with a laugh and a smile. One feels safe around him to the point that his emergence at the house leads one to assume he will help solve the situation. However, near the end of the film, when his true intentions are reveled, the actor is slightly heavy handed in his delivery, although this ends up working in his favor to give the character a more demented twist.

Sadly, the film's low point can be credited to Riichiro Manabe, who takes the title of Toho's worst composer. That's not to say that some of his cues don't have their merit, as the start of the main theme works well here for example. However, a lot of the music found in Vampire Doll is ear piercing, as for every good track in the composer's resume there seems to be an equally awful one. Thankfully, the film is mostly devoid of music, which works well to build the foreboding mood and is largely positive on account of Manabe's inadequacies.

Overall, the film is simply a well-made picture. That's not to say Vampire Doll is a flawless entry in the horror genre, as it has its faults, but, thankfully, most of these are overshadowed by the movie's other qualities.