The Friday Night Horror Movie: The Vampire Doll (1970)

the vampire doll

I’ve talked about how the Criterion Channel is one of my favorite streaming services. Mubi is fast becoming a contender in that category. Mubi actually works as a kind of sister channel to Criterion. Where Criterion focuses on the world’s greatest films and lots of classic Hollywood films (and lots of other more esoteric themes like Snow Westerns and 1970s sci-fi) Mubi’s focus is on more modern art-house fair. They show films that premiere at film festivals like Cannes and Sundance, but that doesn’t necessarily reach a wider audience.

They also have a lot of what you might call cult films – genre movies that have been all but forgotten except by a small group of fans. The Vampire Doll is a good example of what I’m talking about. This was the Japanese film company Toho’s attempt at cashing in on the horror craze that so popular at the time.

It looks and feels like a Hammer Horror film with its creaky old mansion as a setting and its moody supernatural storyline. A man who has been traveling abroad for the last few months returns home to Japan. He immediately rides out to the country to see his girlfriend Yuko (Yukiko Kobayashi). Upon arrival, he is told by her mother (Yôko Minakaze) that Yuko is dead. She died in an automobile accident a few weeks prior.

That evening he sees a woman that appears to be Yuko. Flash forward a few days and the man’s sister, Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) and her fiancee Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) visit the old mansion because they have not heard from her brother in a while and that is unusual. Keiko immediately senses something is wrong and decides to stick around and investigate.

With a 70-minute run time, the plot moves along pretty quickly. Honestly, storywise the film isn’t great. It doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. But it works really well as a mood piece. The mansion is full of creepy shadows, and the music is particularly moody. I mentioned Hammer Horror earlier and that is fitting. If you’ve ever seen any of those old movies then you’ll know what I’m talking about. They have a particular look and feel to them that is perfect for this type of gothic horror.

And that’s why I love sites like Mubi. I’d never heard of this film before, but they spotlighted it and now I’ve seen it and I’m glad that I did.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: The Ring (2002)

the ring

In the early 2000s, horror nerds like myself began to discover what was then called J-Horror. This was a cycle of horror movies made in Japan that started in the early 1990s. Unlike the films made in the United States at the time, J-Horror relied more on atmosphere and mood to create their scares. They often involved haunted houses and evil spirits, the supernatural rather than knife-wielding psychopaths that were so popular in America at the time.

Discovering these films was like a fresh of breath air for folks like me who had long since grown tired of slashers. I believe Ringu (1998) was the first J-Horror film to really make a splash here in the US (I’m sure some horror hound could pop in now to tell me they were watching Japanese Hororr films long before Ringu popularized the genre, but whatever). It was a huge film in Japan and had decent success in America.

Enough so that an American producer decided to remake it as The Ring (2002). That movie was a surprise success and started a succession of American remakes of J-Horror films. Snob that I am I watched pretty much all of them, but always preferred the Japanese originals.

Tonight I decided to rewatch The Ring. I liked it more this time than my previous watches.

It is about a VHS tape that kills you after seven days after your first viewing. Typing that out just now makes me realize how dumb that summary sounds. The film on the tape is like a short film some goth art school kid would make to try and freak everybody out. A couple of teenagers watch the tape and seven days later they die horrible deaths. Naomi Watts plays a journalist who was related to one of the teens. She sniffs a story and investigates.

She finds, then watches the creepy tape and immediately after she receives a phone call telling her she has seven days to live. When her young son accidentally watches the tape and starts drawing creepy drawings she knows she has to solve the mystery.

The original Japanese film is super creepy and atmospheric and really good (you can read my review of it over at Cinema Sentries). The remake is very Americanized in that it provides a few more jump scares, has slicker production values, and juices up the narrative a little bit so that the story is explained to the viewer in clearer turns.

Still, it is effective in its own way. The jump scares work for the most part, and it is still moody enough to give it that J-Horror feels even if it is a little sanitized.

Audition (1999)

audition poster

Audition is a peculiar type of horror film. It is not the violent, gorefest that you might expect from the new stream of Japanese horror films, and certainly not from Takashi Miike, director of such bloodfests as Ichi the Killer and Full Metal Yakuza. It is also not the suspenseful, scare them with what you don’t see the type of horror film that Alfred Hitchcock might make.

In fact, for the first 2/3s of the movie, it is more akin to a family drama than anything you’d call horror. The plot concerns a middle-aged widow, Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), who is encouraged by his teenage son to start dating again. Not knowing how to go about this, he decides to hold auditions for his new wife. Real-life auditions, like you, ’d do in hiring actors for a movie.

Lots of women show up and are interviewed for the lifelong role of wife. Aoyama is intrigued by one woman, Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), and begins to date her. Eventually, we find that Yamazaki is not all who she seems to be and thus the horror begins.

Miike’s ability to turn the conventions of an old romantic formula completely on its head is nothing short of masterful. Watching the first thirty minutes or so of the film, you would have no idea that horrible, bloody things were going to take place later on. Had I not known what to expect from a Miike film, I would have thought I was watching an old-style romance.

Yamazaki at first seems like a natural mate, she is beautiful, sweet, and shy. Miike lets the twist in her character come in slow, short, and shocking bursts. The screw tightens and the horror grows.

The gore is actually pretty minimal, but when the horror comes it comes quick and merciless.

Asian extreme horror is not for everybody. The blood and the gore are too much for a wide audience. But for those with the proper stomachs, Takashi Miike is a master and Audition is one of his best.