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DVD SAVANT
Savant PAL Region 2 Guest Reviews:

Lake OF Dracula
&
Evil OF Dracula

Separate releases reviewed by Lee Broughton

Operating out of Wales, Artsmagic Ltd have, until recently, specialised in bringing classic Japanese Samurai films to DVD via their Warrior label. A new companion label, Shadow Warrior, is now focusing on releasing Japanese films from other genres, including these two horror outings from Toho Studios. The American home video issue of dubbed, censored and panned and scanned versions of these two titles resulted in the circulation of some unflattering reviews but Shadow Warrior's new uncut, widescreen and subtitled DVD presentations prompt a very different reaction: anybody with a liking for Hammer-style vampire flicks, early 70s horror or Toho's output in general should find something of interest here.


Lake of Dracula
Shadow Warrior
1971 / Colour / 2.35:1 flat letterbox / 82m. / Noroi no yakata: Chi wo su me
Starring Mori Kishida, Midori Fujita, Osahide Takahashi, Sanae Emi, Shuji Otaki, Tadao Fumi, Wataru Omae, Yasuzo Ogawa, Keiichi Noda
Cinematography Rokuro Nishigaki
Art director Shigichi Ikuno
Film Editor Hisashi Kondo
Original Music Riichiro Manabe
Written by El Ogawa and Masaru Takesue
Produced by Fumio Tanaka
Directed by Michio Yamamoto

Synopsis:

Akiko's (Midori Fujita) idyllic life in her countryside cottage near Lake Fujimi is disturbed by a series of flashbacks which replay a childhood nightmare in which she wanders into a spooky mansion and is startled by a fearsome, golden-eyed vampire (Mori Kishida). Her boyfriend, Saeki (Osahide Takahashi), is a doctor at the city hospital and he figures that the vampire simply represents a "hypothetical enemy" routinely conjured up by her subconscious. But when an ornate coffin is delivered to the Lake's boathouse and a local girl is subsequently submitted to Saeki's hospital suffering from vampiric malaise, Saeki reluctantly concedes that Akiko just might be in real danger.

Count Dracula in modern day (1971) Japan? Not quite. But it seems that the Count did, at some point, bond with a Japanese girl and, several generations later, one of the pair's male descendants somehow matured into a vampire. If you can swallow this back-story then you're home and dry because, by keeping the rest of the plot relatively simple, Michio Yamamoto (a former assistant to Akira Kurosawa) has put together one of the genre's more plausible 'modern day vampire' films. And although some of the scenarios presented here have a slightly campy feel about them, Yamamoto successfully manages to throw a fair amount of suspense, and some effective audience-jolting 'boo!' moments, into the film's atmospheric and reasonably gothic mix.

Much of the film's success rests upon the feelings of isolation and confusion convincingly emoted by the likeable but unexciting Akiko: as well as being physically isolated by virtue of her rural abode, she's also somewhat isolated emotionally too. Genuinely worried by the content of her flashbacks, Akiko receives little real support from Saeki, who seems more committed to his career than their relationship, or her hip but mischievously envious younger sister, Natsuko (Sanae Emi). We're left feeling that the sensitive and artistic Akiko deserves better. (Spoiler begins....) Instead she really finds herself up against it when her only other regular acquaintance, a friendly handyman from the nearby boathouse, becomes a Renfield-like slave to the newly arrived vampire (....spoiler ends).

Mori Kishida's vampire is a convincing and extremely menacing and feral character. Imposing and physically powerful, his dark clothes are offset by a luminous long white scarf which somehow adds to his strange appearance and sinister air: this vampire, like his victims, displays a noticeable and unsettling zombie-like pallor. While the film inevitably contains a couple of unpleasant moments its content is rarely any more graphic than that of Hammer's Dracula films from the 1960s. That said, the vampire's protracted death throes, and his final piercing scream, make for a fairly bloody and intense finale. Interestingly, there's nothing remotely 'Japanese' about any of the vampiric elements in this tale: the film simply relocates the familiar stuff of European legends to Japan. In fact, the back-story appears to imply that vampirism was completely foreign to Japan prior to Dracula's visit.

Although Lake of Dracula can't really claim to bring anything new to the genre, except maybe its location, it remains a finely crafted little show which unfolds at a measured but even pace, gently allowing its supernatural elements to build and slowly work their way towards centre stage. The cinematography on display here is consistently good, boasting some neat camera placement and some expert framing and composition: the stylized flashback sequences are particularly well staged and feature some interesting set designs. Alas, the film's music is a bit of a mixed bag, playing highly effectively one minute and slightly incongruously the next.


The print used here is free from scratches and speckling but the overall quality of the picture is a little on the soft side and some of the night-time sequences play a little dark. The disc's sound quality is pretty good, with the film being presented in Japanese with optional English subtitles. The portrait gallery section is a great idea which helpfully reveals which actor played which character.



Evil of Dracula
Shadow Warrior
1974 / Colour / 2.35:1 flat letterbox / 83m. / Chi o suu bara
Starring Mori Kishida, Toshio Kurosawa, Mika Katsuragi, Kunie Tanaka, Katsuhiko Sasaki, Moriko Mochizuki, Oota Mio, Aramaki Keiko
Cinematography Kazutami Hara
Art Direction Kazuo Satsuya
Edited by Michiko Ikeda
Original Music Riichiro Manabe
Written by El Ogawa and Masaru Takesue
Produced by Fumio Tanaka
Directed by Michio Yamamoto

Synopsis:

Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa) takes up a teaching position at the remote Seimei School for Girls. His first night there is disturbed by two female vampires who he later identifies as being the Principal's (Mori Kishida) recently deceased wife (Mika Katsuragi) and a pupil who absconded a few weeks earlier. As such, he is forced to assume that he dreamt the whole thing. When another pupil, Kyoko (Aramaki Keiko), goes down with vampiric malaise, the school's physician, Dr Shimimura (Kunie Tanaka), tells Shiraki about the region's popular vampire legend. With Kumi (Moriko Mochizuki) and Yukiko (Oota Mio) volunteering to stay and nurse their fellow pupil while everybody else goes home on vacation, Shiraki and Shimimura decide to stake out the school in the hope of catching a vampire.

The key ingredients from Lake of Dracula are all present here: the 'isolated individual in an isolated location' scenario, the occasionally slightly campy feel, the mix of suspenseful scenes and jolt-inducing 'boo!' moments, the vampire's noticeable pallor, odd moments of unpleasantness, the spooky atmosphere, etc. But the ante is upped somewhat by the employment of a much faster pace and the involvement of more supporting characters. Evidently somebody at Toho had been doing their homework during the years following the release of Lake of Dracula: the vampires here have progressed to biting bare breasts as opposed to necks and the Principal's wife's interaction with her female victims gently hints at the type of erotica that Hammer's genre films had been peddling a few years earlier.

Mori Kishida's fearsome vampire dresses and acts just like the vampire in Lake of Dracula but he appears to be a different character here. There's no mention of Dracula or the Dracula bloodline in this film but the back-story again blames a Westerner for introducing vampirism to Japan. It seems that two hundred years earlier a shipwrecked European traveller was persecuted because of his religious beliefs and driven into the wilderness where he was forced to drink his own blood to survive. He eventually formed an unholy alliance with a local Japanese girl and it is inferred that the pair have survived to this day (1974) as vampires, evading detection due to their ability to literally steal the physical identity of their victims: one particularly graphic and disturbing sequence shows just how they actually do this.

Toshio Kurosawa's Shiraki is a fairly typical hero figure but his training as a psychology teacher seems to have made him somewhat judgmental of others and just a little aloof. The film also features some interesting supporting characters: Kunie Tanaka is good as the school's slightly eccentric, folklore-obsessed doctor while Katsuhiko Sasaki is effective as the creepy Yoshii, a Baudelaire-quoting French language teacher who (spoiler begins....) becomes the Principal's Renfield-like servant. There seems to have been a concerted effort to increase the gothic air and up the action quotient in this film and the final showdown between the Principal and his wife and Shiraki and Kumi is really quite superb: it's an epic and intense struggle in the 'Peter Cushing vs Christopher Lee' mould, played out to the backdrop of a raging thunder and lightning storm. It all ends with the mortally wounded vampire lovers rapidly ageing until only their skeletons remain (....spoiler ends).

The production values here are just about as good as those of Lake of Dracula, with the film boasting good camera placement and framing, even pacing, interesting set design, etc. Riichiro Manabe's music is more consistent here, utilizing some interesting electronic effects in places, but the score still contains the odd cue that plays just a little bit incongruously. The sometimes strange body of contemporary vampire films produced during the early 1970s, which includes the varied delights of titles like Count Yorga, Blacula, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Vampires' Night Orgy, etc, definitely benefits from the inclusion of Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula.


The picture quality here is virtually the same as Lake of Dracula's though Evil of Dracula sports a couple of sequences where the odd straight edge suffers from a slight saw-tooth effect. Again, the sound quality is pretty good, with the film being presented in Japanese with optional English subtitles. This disc features a much bigger portrait gallery section but the Mori Kishida biography and the original promotional materials gallery are the same as the ones that appear on the Lake of Dracula disc.


Both discs are PAL Region 2, and are not intended for playback in the U.S.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lake of Dracula rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Mori Kishida biography, portrait gallery, stills gallery and original promotional materials gallery.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 28, 2003

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Evil of Dracula rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good --
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Mori Kishida biography, portrait gallery, stills gallery and original promotional materials gallery.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 28, 2003





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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