Saturday, 27 July 2013
Fear of the Ghost-House:
(Michio Yamamoto, 1970)
Despite being home to one of the most productive popular film industries in the world during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Japan is usually perceived as having played only a marginal role in the explosion of horror film-making that took place elsewhere during that era. Partly, this could simply be down to the fact that very few Japanese genre movies not featuring Godzilla or Sonny Chiba secured much in the way of international distribution, thus encouraging producers to look to demands of the domestic box office rather than following global trends. And, looking at said demands, it is likely that they decided Japan simply didn’t NEED any Western-style horror films just at the moment.
From the stately Kaidan ghost stories of ‘Onibaba’ and ‘Ugetsu Monogatori’ to the fluorescent atom-age carnage of Ishiro Honda’s Kaiju/sci-fi films and their many imitators, and from the disturbing “Buddhist hell” mythos of Nobuo Nakagawa’s ‘Jigoku’ to the seemingly endless procession of historical torture and bondage films produced by directors like Teruo Ishii and Kiyoshi Kimori; from the ero-guro mysteries of influential author Edogawa Rampo to rural Japan’s mythic hordes of Oni and Tengu and Yokai monsters (memorably dramatised in Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s ‘The Great Yokai War’ aka ‘Spook Warfare’ (1968))…. I think it’s safe to say that Japanese popular culture had more than enough home-grown grotesquery and horror going on, without the need for any imported vampires wondering around incongruous stone castles indulging in a bit of tepid blood-letting.
Nonetheless though, Western horror films were evidently quite widely seen in Japan (for instance, British directors have often talked about being asked to provide stronger material for “the Asian cut”, a notion recently backed up by the discovery of a few moments of previously unseen gore on a Japanese print of Hammer’s ‘Dracula’), and it stands to reason that sometime, somewhere, someone in the Land of the Rising Sun was bound to have a bash at putting their own stamp on the conventions of good ol’ fashioned gothic horror.
Step forward Michio Yamamoto, a marginal figure at Toho(1) who in 1970 took a chance with a low budget, barely feature length programmer entitled ‘Chi wo sû Ningyô: Yûrei Yashiki no Kyôfu’ – often screened in the West under the name ‘Legacy of Dracula’, but more directly translated as something like ‘Fear of the Ghost-House: Bloodthirsty Doll’, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a touch more evocative (not to mention accurate, given the complete absence of Dracula).
The first entry in a loose trilogy of Japanese vampire films directed by Yamamoto over the next few years, ‘Bloodthirsty Doll’ certainly makes no bones about its debt to Western horror, opening with a nervous young man taking a cab-ride through a thunder storm to an isolated mansion where he hopes to be reunited with his college girlfriend Yuko. By the time our man has arrived at the crumbling, wrought-iron edifice of the titular ‘ghost-house’ (its European aspect is later explained by some throwaway dialogue about how the family’s former patriarch was an internationally-minded diplomat who built the house and subsequently let it fall into disrepair), and by the time he has been greeted by a mute, hunchbacked man-servant and presented to his girl’s pale, emotionless mother, who briskly informs him that his beloved died two weeks previously in a car accident, we’re deep into familiar gothic territory, already fending off distant memories of everything from Corman’s ‘House of Usher’ to Bava’s ‘Lisa & The Devil’.
In fact Yamamoto’s film seems so in thrall to Western tradition that were it not for the language and the physiognomy of the actors, the first half of ‘Bloodthirsty Doll’ could easily be mistaken for a lower tier Spanish or Italian gothic horror, with rattling doorknobs and creaking rocking chairs, oil lantern-lit graveyard exhumations, sleepless nights, creepy mannequins and nightie-clad nocturnal phantasms all present and correct. It is interesting I think that, despite the reported popularity of Hammer product in Japan, Yamamoto very much goes all out for a European (as opposed to British/American) approach to the genre here, eschewing logic and narrative momentum in favour of barely coherent, scribbled-on-the-back-of-beer-mat plotting, flat-lining non-performances from the central cast (at no point does anyone even threaten to develop a character), and eye-wateringly slow pacing.
Horror fans with little tolerance for such perceived deficiencies will likely find ‘Bloodthirsty Doll’s 70 minutes just as much of a chore as the last time they tried to stay awake through an Antonio Margheriti or Amando de Ossorio flick, but conversely, card-carrying Europhiles may be assured that, lacking though it may be in any flat-out craziness, Yamamoto’s film still draws deeply from the positive side of woozy Euro-horror stylistics, compensating for its lack of more traditional virtues by piling up heaps of precisely the kind of rich, fecund atmosphere that keeps us coming back again and again to even the more mediocre entries in the Euro-horror cycle, showcasing some beautifully cramped, shadow-filled mise en scene, a handful of memorably chilling images, and some moments of viscerally effective film-making that would easily serve raise it above the also-rans, were it a standard European production.
Though nowhere near as extravagant or accomplished as a Bava or Argento (Riccardo Freda’s early gothics might be a more appropriate comparison in directorial terms), Yamamoto nonetheless does his best to startle and unnerve whenever possible, clearly placing no great value on subtlety as he throws in 180 degree pans, ‘lightning strike’ insert shots and ‘shock’ usage of slow & fast motion on a regular basis, even breaking from the Euro blueprint by going directly for the jump-scare jugular on a several occasions. With the addition of Riichirô Manabe’s startlingly dissonant, drone-heavy score (which seems to directly prefigure Kenji Kawai’s memorable work on the ‘Ring’ films)(2), a number of scenes here are genuinely rather frightening, in spite of the somnambulant predictability of the plotting, evoking a feeling of physical threat that is rare indeed in European gothic, but that would go on to help define the aesthetic of the ‘90s J-horror boom a few decades later.
In fact, it is ironic that, despite its Western accoutrements, the elements of ‘Bloodthirsty Doll’ that work the best are those that seem most quintessentially Japanese. Although it is initially implied that she is a Western style vampire, Yukiko Kobayashi’s Yuka instead comes on like the purest Kaidan/J-horror bogey-woman you could ever hope to meet – a white-skinned, long-haired demon child with blank, marbled eyes and an evil grin, appearing out of forests and dark corners to raise the totem of her bloody, disfigured lower arms before striking out for her victims’ throats, sending them floor-ward in a split second before she disappears again, grinning gleefully – a monster far closer to the age-old ‘avenging female ghost’ archetype than to any variation on Count Dracula.
Correspondingly, I probably don’t need to tell you that Yuka’s posthumous condition is not the result of any prior vampiric encounter, but instead a supernatural manifestation of the burning desire for vengeance implanted in her soul by the assorted traumas and indignities she was subjected to in life. Discounting a rather flimsy attempt to tie her condition in with elements of hypnotism and mad science, ‘Bloodthirsty Doll’ is to all intents and purposes a Kaidan story in gothic horror drag, its attempts to modernise the formula of the classical Japanese ghost story for an audience raised on Western horror films anticipating (for better or for worse) the numerous similar projects undertaken by the country’s writers and directors around the turn of the millennium.
Though too modest in ambition and flat in execution to really count as ‘essential viewing’ for anyone less than completely obsessed with the idea of Japanese gothic horror films, ‘Bloodthirsty Doll’ is nonetheless a fairly effective little movie that makes me look forward to checking out the other two entries in Yamamoto’s 'vampire trilogy'.
VIEWING NOTE: At the time of writing, I am watching the three Yamamoto films on a set of out of print British DVDs released by the company ArtsMagic of Ebbw Vale, Gwent back in 2002. The quality of these releases is, I’m sorry to say, abysmal – letterboxed 4:3 taken straight from what looks like a particularly dark and foggy VHS source, with added digital pixilation thrown in for good measure. (The screen-shots above have been tweaked to make them look a bit more presentable). I know that, somewhere, better quality sub-titled versions of these films exist, for I have seen screen-shots elsewhere online. So if anyone feels like, say, pointing me in the right direction in time for my forthcoming reviews of the other two films, well… that would be lovely.
(1) Yamamoto’s film career certainly got off to a good start, working as assistant to Kurasawa on ‘Throne of Blood’ back in 1957, but subsequent to that he has only six directorial credits to his name, and about the same number of AD credits – a fairly pitiful scorecard in the relentlessly prolific world of Japanese commercial filmmaking.
(2) A prolific composer for both Toho and Shochiku through the ‘60s and ‘70s, Manabe worked on everything from Nagisa Oshima’s early films to a memorable handful of early ‘70s Godzilla flicks.