The Bloodthirsty Trilogy Review
When we think of the vampires what or who is the first image we think of? Generally, it comes down to two famous studios and two actor’s representation of the bloodsuckers, Universal's Dracula with Bela Lugosi as the titular undead king of the night, or Hammer's Dracula, the film that launched the imposing figure of Christopher Lee to international acclaim. You could throw Max Schreck's Nosferatu in there as well, but for the most part, vampires are suave, sophisticated, immaculately dressed in evening wear with a black cape, red lining and a widow's peak.
They do not tend to be Japanese that's for sure. That is generally because Japan does not have the same native legends of the undead coming back to life to feast on the blood of the living like Eastern Europe or China, with the Jiangshi or "hopping" vampire. They do have vampiric beings like the Jubokko, a carnivorous vampire tree that awakens on battlefields to ensnare unware travellers and suck their blood through straw-like branches. There is also the breath-stealing Yamachichi, the Nobusuma, an omnivorous bat-like creature that feeds on blood as well as nuts and berries and the closely related Nodeppo, which acts like the Nobusuma but looks like a badger.
It is odd then that Toho Studios (the very same that brought us Gojira) made a trilogy of vampire films from 1970 to 1974, inspired by the Hammer films starring Christopher Lee. Now, these films: The Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula have been released on Blu-ray by that bastion of cult movies Arrow Video.
Firstly, it is probably best if you do not marathon these films as they all blur into one, thanks to a similar cast and story beats. The Vampire Doll features a young couple, Keiko and Hiroshi, who are investigating the disappearance of Keiko's brother Kazuhiko and his fiancée Yuko, and stumble upon a sinister family hiding a deadly secret. Lake of Dracula is set, yes you've guessed it, by a lake as a young couple, Akiko and Takashi, are menaced by a vampire. The third film, Evil of Dracula, is set in a girls boarding school and is about a new teacher, Shiraki, who is set to be the next headteacher, but is warned by other staff members that the role brings about some changes, which more often than not results in the disappearance of five girls.
Japan still had a strong studio system that churned out A and B pictures, Toho was one of those studios and The Bloodthirsty Trilogy were such B Pictures. All three of these films are directed by Michio Yamamoto, assistant to Akira Kurosawa on Throne of Blood who was chosen from a pool of contract directors to make this trilogy. Similarly, Toho drew from a stable of actors, not their stars, but reliable character performers that could fill the cast list.
The stories themselves, however, are perhaps less excusable. While they are set in different places and the main cast are different, each story plays out in much the same way. It is formulaic Hammer-type horror, with a young couple being terrorised by some monster, Included is a prologue where the first victim meeting a grisly end, and stock characters, scares, repeated special effects and plot points. There are some moments that feel recycled within films and the writing is poor with story elements, really interesting ones, that never really go anywhere and don't tie in to the main story. Some of the endings as well come out of nowhere and the odd law behind the films’ vampires does ruin the immersion within the story. I should also mention the acting which, while passable, never really elevates the mythology or characters we know. In fact, in Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula, the vampire(s) are uncannily similar to Christopher Lee's version.
Within The Bloodthirsty Trilogy, peeking out behind the clouds of mediocrity are some moments of true artistry, and atmosphere. These films drip with the stuff, and it is clear from the gothic design of the (clearly inexpensive) sets that they did indeed take heavy inspiration from Hammer. Bolts of lightning may be drawn on to the film, but there is an odd charm to it much like Nobuhiko Obayashi's House (1977), a strange magnetism which is in the set design, and colour scheme. However, the stale plots and outdated seventies-ness of the films, especially Evil of Dracula, which has a teacher crushing on a student, almost ruin these brief flashes of creativity and originality.
Arrow Video are in charge of this release and do a grand job in presenting each title in high definition, even if the film itself suffers slightly for it. Using the original film elements for the video and an uncompressed mono 1.0 PCM audio track, each film lacks any digital or analogue errors that get in the way of the viewing experience. There is, however, at one point a focus-pulling mistake but that is the fault of the original cameraman.
Alongside the films, Arrow has included the original trailers of each film as well as an interview with critic and writer Kim Newman, who provides context for the movies and how they fit within the framework of horror cinema and Japanese genre cinema as a whole. There is a limited run of booklets with an essay by Jasper Sharp, but overall the amount of extras is somewhat lacking, especially for a trilogy of films as unique as these.
The Bloodthirsty Trilogy is a bit of a disappointment. While the films themselves are average - if atmospheric and occasionally creative - horror films, the box set of them lacks something that makes more of the films. They clearly hold an interesting position in film history but it would have benefitted from exploring the history in greater detail, perhaps including some making of background or the adaptation process of something that isn't a native folk-creature. If you are a fan of J-horror or the Hammer style of scares, then look into this trilogy boxset, but for everyone else, it may leave you thirsty for more.