Saturday 21 June 2014

Nippon Horrors:
The Bloodthirsty Roses /
‘Evil of Dracula’
(Michio Yamamoto, 1974)

Having reviewed the first two installments in Michio Yamamoto’s trilogy of Japanese vampire movies, I feel duty-bound to take a crack at the final film, although to be honest I don’t have a great deal to say about 1974’s Chi O-Suu Bara (rough translation: ‘The Bloodthirsty Roses’), which reached American shores under the fittingly generic title ‘Evil of Dracula’.

Whereas the first of Yamamoto’s films was creepy and touched interestingly upon past and future J-horror tropes, and the second one had a memorably hypnotic and dream-like feel to it, ‘Roses..’/’Evil..’ offers no such points of interest, instead telling a by-the-book vampire story in a wholly predictable fashion, as if deliberately trying not to draw too much attention to itself amid the avalanche of Western gothic horror product that was finally spluttering to a halt around the time of its release.

The set up – in which a handsome young teacher (Toshio Kurosawa) travels to ‘the remote North’ to take up a post in an isolated private school – begins with yet another reiteration of the “Harker arrives at Castle Dracula” opening, as filtered through Universal, Hammer and innumerable parodies/imitations thereof. Thus the teacher arrives in an otherwise deserted Western-style cobwebbed mansion, and is greeted by Shin Kishida, playing the reclusive, daylight-shunning principal (GUESS WHO?). After this, the Girls’ School setting shifts things more toward a pattern reminiscent of Hammer’s ‘Lust for a Vampire’, released a year or two earlier, whilst some business with white roses turning red as the vampires feed seems to reflect the influence of Roger Vadim’s ‘Blood & Roses’ (1960).

Although the summer holidays begin shortly after the teacher’s arrival, a bunch of pupils continue to hang around on the slightly flimsy pretext that one of their fellows is bed-ridden with a mysterious ailment (GUESS WHAT?), and they have stayed on to keep her company. Thereafter, things proceed like clockwork. Some of the girls get bitten, some don’t. None of them have any personality or defining attributes, so it doesn’t really matter either way. Teacher meets a friendly doctor who clues him in on the ways of the supernatural, then ums and ahhs for about forty minutes of screen time before eventually venturing into the crypt to stake the undead fiend and his bride…. and that’s about it, plot-wise.

It is ironic that ‘Evil..’ should take its cue from ‘Lust For a Vampire’, as, in stark contrast to that film, Yamamoto maintains a grimly serious tone throughout, completely refusing to give in to the kind of humour and sex appeal that added a spark to many an uninspired vampire movie in the early ‘70s. Whilst few would want a Japanese remake of the fairly woeful ‘Lust..’ (though ask me again after a few beers and I might change my mind), the opposite approach taken here proves just as unsatisfactory, and, lacking as it is in the kind of dramatic engagement that would justify such dour solemnity, the film swiftly drifts toward tedium.

In keeping with Yamamoto’s earlier horror films, there is almost no reference to Japanese culture here at all, and the notion of a European gothic horror story taking place in the mountains of Hokkaido (or wherever), complete with genre-appropriate clothes, architecture, food and so on, seems more ridiculous than ever. Perhaps looking to offset this incongruity, the film’s sole concession to originality comes via its explanation of how vampirism came to Japan in the first place. Naturally enough, it seems it grew from a foreign / Christian source, an idea that was touched upon in ‘Lake..’. Thus a legend is recounted explaining how a European shipwrecked in Japan during the 17th century was tortured by the Shogunate until he rejected his Christian fatih and spat upon the cross, thus damning himself and apparently succumbing to vampirism.

“The white man lost his god and went mad,” the exposition-spouting doctor succinctly observes, before a drained colour flashback shows us this biblical-looking pilgrim fleeing across a conveniently placed desert, as he develops a taste for blood and vampirises a young girl, thus establishing the lineage of which our present-day Principal Dracula is a direct descendent.

Unfortunately, Kishida, who was pretty cool as Dracula in ‘Lake..’, seems a bit under the weather here, and, whilst he looks the part, his screams and growls (a highlight of the earlier film) are slightly lacking in conviction. A shame. A moody, Baudelaire-quoting teacher in the film’s Renfield role briefly adds a touch of interest, but he soon wanders out of the story for some reason, and with the rest of the cast too bland to carry a plywood coffin, let alone a movie, there is little left after the aforementioned flashback to hold our interest on the human side.

Generic as it is though, ‘Evil..’ is at least quite stylishly executed, suggesting that Yamamoto’s technical chops as a director have grown a little in the three years since ‘Lake..’, even as his apparent disinterest in narrative momentum has remained a constant. The sets from the previous movies have been scrubbed up and rebuilt a little, looking a bit grander as a result, and, more noticeably, the mountain setting allows for some very fetching rural location photography that helps create some richly atmospheric moments; a couple of spooky woodland scenes with fog rolling in off the lake prove particular highlights.

Vampire stalk/attack sequences are both more frequent and more skilfully realised than in the earlier films, with Yamamoto’s penchant for slow-moving, dead-eyed, marble-skinned vampire girls very much coming to the fore, and there are a few fairly gory moments to enjoy. Within the walls of the school, there are some good corridor walks and prototype jump-scares, and the special effects used for the final vamp disintegration scene (yes, another one) are quite impressive.

Riichirô Manabe’s score is excellent too, probably my favourite thing about this movie in fact, and definitely the best work Manabe did on this trilogy, with ‘Bitches Brew’-esque jazz squiggles accompanying the opening train station sequences, and waves of dissonant electronics, tremoloed synth pulses and distorted wah-wah guitar later doing a great deal to liven up the vampire sequences. Really great stuff.

But again – despite a higher quantity of vampire business realised with a greater degree of cinematic skill, there is nothing here that will make much of an impression on anyone who has seen more than a handful of Western vampire films, with no imagery that lingers in the mind after viewing and little to save us from mere clock-watching as Yamamoto’s characteristically sluggish pacing becomes increasingly trying through the long trudge of the middle half hour.

I don’t want to rag on ‘Evil..’ too hard, because as noted, it’s a reasonably well made and atmospheric gothic horror film with some effective moments. So instead, let’s just sum up by saying that there is absolutely nothing here to make horror fans jump out of their seats to track down a copy, but, if you’ve got the candles lit and the curtains flapping one dark night, and feel the need for a wholly conventional, soporifically paced vampire film with a certain amount of style, Yamamoto’s got your number.

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

I saw Lake of Dracula. I've got this on my see-list for some time now.