In Joe Hill’s excellent Heart-Shaped Box, there is a small side story about a little girl who once went missing. A ghostly reenactment of what happened to her is witnessed by the main character, Judas Coyne. It isn’t terribly consequential to the story overall, but is nonetheless chilling and impactful. I’m a bit of a sucker for moments like this.
The Japanese film The Vampire Doll has such a moment, in which a doctor tells a ghost story that lasts a little over a minute. It’s about as brief of a detour as an already short movie ought to allow, but it’s surprisingly memorable and effective despite–or maybe because of–how short and matter of fact it is. The doctor uses the story–his experience, really–to explain why he, “a man of science,” is open to the existence of the supernatural. It also influences another character, Hiroshi, to reconsider his skepticism regarding fiancée’s claim that she (Keiko) actually saw someone who was supposed to be dead. Honestly, even if it served no purpose at all, I wouldn’t mind. In fact, I wish more stories could take a quick moment to tell us about other horrors and eerie mysteries within their universe beyond the one that is the focus of the plot.
The Vampire Doll is the first of a thematically connected trio of Japanese vampire films directed by Michio Yamamoto, and by produced by Toho studios, much more famous for Gojira and a host of other kaiju films, as well as several Kurosawa films and the likes of Ikiru. Toho is also responsible for some terrific horror films1, including Kwaidan, Onibaba and Kuroneko, and in the first half of the 70’s they had a run at three European-influenced vampire films referred to as the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy.”
Each film clocks in under 90-minutes, The Vampire Doll being the shortest at just over 70 minutes. As you might suspect given the abbreviated runtime, the movie is interested in getting where its going with as few delays as possible. This leads to a few more contrivances than you might expect even in your average horror flick. A missing brother’s ring is spotted pretty easily on the grounds of the house where he was last seen. A man who buried a now-undead young woman just happens to be present to overhear Keiko and Hiroshi arguing over what to do next to find her brother. While she goes back to the house where she saw the vampiric spirit of her brother’s own fiancée–and where the lady of the house, Shidu, is very clearly hiding something–Hiroshi is approached by the gravedigger and told everything he needs to know to be productive in his own way.
Could the movie stand to expand some of these moments, make the characters work at least a little bit harder to find some clues and information? Of course, and it would probably be better for it, but part of me still appreciates its efficiency. It anticipates that we’ll anticipate certain story beats and never pretends it’s not going where we know it’s going. To be clear, there’s a better, more patient way to tell this story, a path that better foreshadows and expands on a critical late-film revelation, but there’s also a much worse, more plodding and repetitive way to tell it as well. I ache less for the better version of this film than I feel gratitude for the version of it that we have.
There are some very effective, creepy moments in this film. Whenever our vampire girl, Yuko, shows up with her golden, evil eyes, unearthly complexion and terrifying grin, it’s always a treat. She is as much a phantom as she is a vampire, which makes sense considering how ghostly (and/or witchy, and/or demonic) European-style vampires were in older, pre-Dracula lore, where sometimes the dead didn’t physically rise from the grave so much as emerge from it as partly ethereal things that could return to their coffin after feeding while leaving the earth undisturbed.
A haunted-house vampire tragedy, The Vampire Doll‘s brevity and refusal to even tease at something unexpected until about the last fifteen minutes or so can almost make it feel like a rushed, made-for-TV capitalization on a trend, but its production value, acting and spooky spirit-vamp elevate it.
Final Verdict: Just a good little horror flick, told well (if very quickly) with a classically gothic tone.