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(Japan - 1970; US release 1971)

Directed by Michio Yamamoto. Written by Ei Ogawa and Hiroshi Nagano. Cast: Kayo Matsuo, Akira Nakao, Yukiko Kobayashi, Yoko Minamikaze, Kaku Takashina, Junya Usami, Atsuo Nakamura, Jun Hamamura. (Unrated, 71 mins)

Japan's Toho Co, Ltd. will forever be inextricably linked with GODZILLA and the entire kaiju universe that it spawned nearly 65 years ago. A close second would be the classic films of Akira Kurosawa, but prompted by the success of the Poe series being churned out by AIP and the Hammer frightfests of the day, Toho briefly dabbled in classic horror in the early 1970s. That type of classical "western" horror was unusual for Toho or any Japanese production company, as most instances of Japanese horror (1965's KWAIDAN being a good example) were based in Japanese and "eastern" myths, customs, and styles. The so-called "Bloodthirsty Trilogy" is a loose collection of mostly classically traditional vampire films produced by Toho from 1970 to 1974, all of them directed by Michio Yamamoto, a former assistant to Kurosawa (1957's THRONE OF BLOOD) who never really broke out and established himself beyond the "Bloodthirsty Trilogy." Born in 1933, Yamamoto was only 43 when he quit the movie industry and became a minor footnote in the grand Toho story, never heard from again before his death in 2004. Just out on Blu-ray in a three-film set from Arrow Video, the titles in the "Bloodthirsty Trilogy" are available in their intended versions for the first time in years (the second film in the series, LAKE OF DRACULA, had the most exposure on American TV back in the day and was released on VHS by Paramount in 1994), hopefully rescuing the forgotten Yamamoto from oblivion.

1970's THE VAMPIRE DOLL is a stylish and eerie contemporary tale with ominous goings-on that begin on a dark and stormy night in a cursed, Usher-like house of the damned in the middle of nowhere. After working in America for six months, Kazuhiko Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura) arrives at the family home of his girlfriend Yuko (Yukiko Kobayashi) only to be told by her grieving mother Mrs. Nonomura (Yoko Minamikaze) that she was killed in a car accident two weeks earlier. Kazuhiko is devastated and ultimately skeptical, especially when he keeps seeing Yuko in the house and on the grounds, confronting her at her own grave where her pale visage greets him and begs "Please kill me." Back home, Kazuhiko's younger sister Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) senses he's in danger and drags her fiance Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) to the Nonomura house to investigate. They arrive only to be told by Mrs. Nonomura that Kazuhiko left, but car trouble forces them to stay the night, and it isn't long before Keiko starts seeing Yuko as well. Yamamoto fills THE VAMPIRE DOLL with memorably creepy imagery, whether it's the appearance of the undead Yuko with her bloodied arms and glowing yellow eyes, Hiroshi exhuming Yuko's corpse and finding a lifeless doll in her coffin, an untraceable sound of weeping that faintly echoes through the house ("It's the wind blowing through the skylight window," Mrs. Nonomura claims), or Hiroshi's discovery of Kazuhiko's bloodstained cufflink at Yuko's grave, proof that he never left the grounds and that Mrs. Nonomura and her loyal, mute manservant Genzo (Kaku Takashina) are hiding something. THE VAMPIRE DOLL does stumble a bit when it tries to explain too much in regards to the tragic Nonomura family backstory as it ventures down a path that prefigures the later JU-ON films and J-Horror tropes as the town doctor (Junya Usami) shows up to function as a Japanese Basil Exposition. But it gets back on track fairly quickly, with Yamamoto fashioning the film as an almost identical replica of AIP, Hammer, and Amicus (Hiroshi even compliments his host's "splendid Western-style house") and despite the cultural differences, the universal language of classic horror translates beautifully. This is a moody, vividly atmospheric, and scary little gem with well-done jolts, wonderful set design and shot compositions and it benefits greatly from a brief 71-minute running time that relentlessly cuts through the bullshit.

(Japan - 1971; US release 1973)

Directed by Michio Yamamoto. Written by Ei Ogawa and Masaru Takesue. Cast: Choei Takahashi, Sanae Emi, Midori Fujita, Shin Kishida, Kaku Takashina, Hideji Otaki, Michiyo Yamazoe, Fusako Tachibana. (Unrated, 82 mins)

Yamamoto and VAMPIRE DOLL co-writer Ei Ogawa were back the next year with LAKE OF DRACULA, a peculiarly uneven vampire outing that gets off to a terrific start but stumbles and bumbles when it starts trying to pretend it's not a vampire movie. On a seasonal leave from her studies, Akiko (Midori Fujita) is spending her break at a cabin in a lakeside village with her younger sister Natsuko (Sanae Emi). She's haunted by a childhood memory 18 years earlier when her dog Leo wandered into a strange house and she encountered what appeared to be a vampire. A strange cargo delivery dropped off for local handyman Kyusaku (Kaku Takashina) is revealed to contain the coffin of Dracula (Shin Kishida). Dracula immediately puts the bite on Renfield...er, I mean, Kyusaku, who proceeds to kill Leo (who's pretty spry and energetic for a dog who must be at least 18 years old by this point) and attack Akiko. She gets away, but as Natsuko falls under Dracula's spell, Akiko and her doctor boyfriend Saeki (Choei Takahashi) attempt to get to the bottom of the strange occurrences.

Kishida is a terrifying Dracula, complete with a guttural, gurgling growl that makes him sound possessed. When LAKE OF DRACULA focuses on him--which isn't nearly enough--it's great stuff. But the film makes the bizarre decision to go off on a psychological tangent, with Saeki, who functions as whatever the plot needs him to be at any given moment (hard-working ER doc, vampire expert, psychologist, hypnotist), convinced that Akiko's problems lie with her repressed memories of sibling jealousy and that "Dracula" is just a mortal madman hypnotizing everyone into believing he's a vampire. It's an absurd bit of misdirection that only serves to pointlessly pad the story, since a) it's obvious from the supernatural shenanigans that this is a purely evil agent of the undead wreaking havoc, and b) the already short movie would only be about an hour long without it. The script tries to draw parallels between Akiko's family issues and a curse affecting the family of the vampire--who may be Dracula or just a present incarnation of him--but it's all psychological smoke and mirrors that works to the film's detriment. It's so preoccupied with bending over backwards to not be a Dracula movie that it ends up sabotaging itself, especially since Kishida is so great in the role. LAKE OF DRACULA has been the easiest of the "Bloodthirsty Trilogy" to see over the years. In addition to its surprise VHS appearance in 1994, it got a subtitled theatrical release in the US in 1973 before turning up in a dubbed version in a TV syndication package in 1980, along with its follow-up, EVIL OF DRACULA.

(Japan - 1974; US release 1975)

Directed by Michio Yamamoto. Written by Ei Ogawa and Masaru Takesue. Cast: Toshio Kurosawa, Kunie Tanaka, Katsuhiko Sasaki, Shin Kishida, Mariko Mochizuki, Mio Ota, Mika Katsuragi, Keiko Aramaki, Yunosuke Ito. (Unrated, 83 mins)

The final installment in the "Bloodthirsty Trilogy" rights the ship after the erratic and uneven LAKE OF DRACULA. Shin Kishida is back as, if not Dracula, then a very similar vampire, this time in the guise of a principal at an isolated girls school in northern Japan. Prof. Shiraki (Toshia Kurosawa), a young instructor from Tokyo, arrives for a new teaching post and is shocked to walk into an already grief-filled situation: the professor's wife died two days earlier and her body is being kept in coffin in the basement per "local custom," and one of the students has gone missing. It doesn't take long for Shiraki to find both of them when they attack him in his room after he's been drinking, which causes him to dismiss it as a bad dream. Then next morning, the principal tells Shiraki that he's ill and wants him to take over his job. He's apprehensive, especially after meeting superstitious colleague Dr. Shimomura (Kunie Tanaka), an expert in local folklore, who informs him of a well-known area legend involving a European shipwreck survivor from two centuries earlier who was forced to drink his own blood to survive. He met a local woman and they continued feasting on one another's blood, thus perpetrating a curse that has haunted the region since. Doing some further digging and finding evidence of a string of long-missing "principals" who ran the school (which is a front for the vampire to procure slavishly-devoted "brides"), Shiraki and Shimamura discover that the vampiric "spirit" lives on, assuming the shape its latest victim and requiring a new body when its host is about to die.

Again drenched in atmosphere and showcasing numerous chilling moments (few more haunting than a student nearing the completion of her turn into the undead and using her last traces of humanity to make the conscious decision to fling herself to her death), EVIL OF DRACULA is also an interesting, almost HORROR EXPRESS-meets-THE THING-like take on vampire lore, with Kishida once again crushing it as one of the most ferocious of all cinematic "Dracula"s, for all intents and purposes. Like LAKE OF DRACULA, EVIL OF DRACULA doesn't use Kishida as much as it should, but it's a much more consistent and straightforward film with some inventive ideas and several solid jump scares. Yamamoto directed a couple more TV projects before calling it a career in 1976, while Kishida stayed busy as a character actor (he turned up in SHOGUN ASSASSIN in scenes culled from the first two LONE WOLF AND CUB movies) until he succumbed to lung cancer in 1982 at the far-too-young age of 42. If Arrow's release of this trilogy can lead to a renewed appreciation of the obscure Yamamoto as a sort-of Japanese Mario Bava, then let's hope it also serves to show horror fans that they've been missing one of the great screen Draculas in the form of Shin Kishida.

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