Friday, June 9, 2017

Franchise Run-Through: Toho's Dracula Films

So, welcome back to another entry here. We're going to be taking a look today at a collection of films that form a loose trilogy of efforts that are going to be tentatively dubbed Toho's Dracula Saga.

Now, usually, this is the part of the write-up where I give a long description why I'm doing this series, and the answer to that is incredibly strange. The answer here is that a Facebook group that I'm in decided to run streams of various Japanese horror films involving Universal monster adaptations in celebration of the upcoming reboot of The Mummy, and with my being stumped for a blog entry for the week and not having seen the films before, this seemed like a perfect fit. That's really that called me into doing this write-up, so I don't have anything else to say about my history with these films or even why I'm doing it this week. I had heard of them but never seen them, they were available to watch for the first time, I was unsure of what to write about, the end.

With that rather interesting tidbit done, let's learn a little more about the series. Considering the time period of their start as well as the overall look and layout of the films themselves, they are clearly inspired by the Hammer series of horror films being produced during that time, as the first film Horror of Dracula was released in 1958 and would've reached Japan long before the time this one started up, and even some of the later sequels would've made it to their shores by the date the first one was made. Considering the success they were enjoying throughout the world, both financially and critically, as well as the fact that Toho Studios had a long history of success in American theaters with their films, it makes sense that they're willing to dabble in their own brand of imitations.

That is indeed an important note to make here, in that these films were all done by Toho Studios. The legendary home of the original Godzilla movies as well as countless other films throughout their existence including works from many of the most revered and respected Japanese directors and actors. In fact, working on the technical side of these films were many of the special effects technicians during the series' 70s adventures, while the main cast includes several faces that popped up in a Godzilla film or two. That gives these some familiar ground to help ease these films along as they're startlingly more western than would be expected.

That is one of the more surprising issues with these films as a whole since I really haven't discussed them much as a whole yet.  Filled with traditional Western-style houses, replete with wooden staircases, furniture more accommodating to a Western audience and utilizing familiar Gothic tropes in storylines and appearance, from the ladies walking around in flowing nightgowns, the incorporation of coffins and chest-staking in the plots and the imagery throughout the film all come together into these films for the first time in Japanese cinema. That is a big part of the historical importance in these films is that they're the first attempts of Japanese genre filmmaking to make films openly taking advantage of outside influences as the history of their films had been decidedly against that trend.

From the early days of Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Inagaki making period dramas and folklore-inspired fantasies throughout the 40s and 50s to the work of Ishiro Honda and Jun Fukuda who started incorporating fantasy and horror into their films, an overwhelming amount of work in Japanese cinema had been aimed for local audiences and were decidedly Japanese in tone and appearance. While Honda's Godzilla films, and to a lesser extent the Gamera series as well, were popular overseas outside of Japanese cinema there were few instances of films being made that specifically broached that topic until this series started up and it sparked a minor movement in Japanese cinema that brought more outside influences into their filmmaking. Unfortunately, a nationwide oil crisis and a booming explosion of popularity in television-based shows crippled that before it really began, yet the seeds were sown and it felt a small ripple across the filmmaking community based on the success of these films taking on a more Western-based sense of familiarity.

Now, that being said the films themselves are striking underseen here in America even with these influences more than readily appealing to our audience. The first film is still unofficially unreleased here with no official dub-track ever recorded for it and never given any kind of official home video release, existing as subtitled bootlegs found at conventions or tape-trading to this day. The two sequels, though, are known to have a dub-track attached to them but also manage feature no official home video release on DVD or Blu-Ray. Parts 2 and 3 were released on VHS in the mid-90s on cropped, pan-and-scan format with their dub-tracks but that has been their only release to date here in the US. An import set from Japan does exist, but that's long out-of-print with a 2005 street-date and has more-than-likely resulted in the series being ignored to this day. It's definitely worth the time to revisit them and rediscover this rather unconventional approach from the country.

And with that, let's get to know these efforts.

Legacy of Dracula (Yûrei yashiki no kyôfu: Chi wo sû ningyô, or The Night of the Vampire, Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll)

This was a highly enjoyable and interesting effort. The main thing here is the fact that this one really piles on the Gothic ambiance and atmosphere throughout here, going for a much more Western tone and set-up than would be expected to come from the country. With the large layout of the mansion and the way it's decorated, the feel is a lot more of a familiar one rather than being distinctly Japanese, and with the expansive mansion grounds visible under the burning moonlight, the eerie fog-enshrouded grounds and straightforward storyline it's quite a chilling Gothic horror effort. The touches of Japanese culture in here, from the bizarre camera angles to the distorted visuals and sense of despair and loneliness do add a great feel here by mixing together both cultures rather nicely which gives this a fantastic blend of both styles in one effort. Along with some nice action and a bit of creepiness from the main vampire leads this one has some solid points going for it over the flaws. There are some pacing issues with the middle of the film being about the investigation into what happened which does counteract some of the vampire action, but nonetheless, there's a lot to enjoy here. (9/10)

Lake of Dracula (Noroi no yakata: chi o suu me, or Bloodsucking Eyes, Dracula's Lust for Blood)

This was a decent enough if slightly flawed vampire effort. What this one gets right is mostly the buildup of the vampire in the area in the first half which is rather nicely done. Building the strange crate delivery alongside her arrival at the same time is quite nicely handled, and the first attacks, as well as the discovery of their aftermath, comes off rather well as the mystery starts to unfold. Once it's confirmed that there are vampires involved, things pick up far more here with the Gothic action scenes really enhancing this one, as this one becomes far more energetic and frightening knowing that there's a powerful figure out there trying to get them so it really works nicely especially with all the brawling and confrontations in the final half which make this a lot more engaging than earlier. It's just bogged down way too much by a slow and uninteresting first half before that's not really all that exciting regardless of how well it builds up the storyline. While it mixes the Eastern and Western scenarios a little better, overall it does come up a little short. (7.5/10)

Evil of Dracula (Chi o suu bara, or Bloodsucking Rose)

This was a highly enjoyable and engaging effort in the series. What tends to give this one a lot of it's best qualities is the fact that there's quite a creepy atmosphere developed from the very start as the Gothic atmosphere becomes a focus quite early on. Even going with a more Western-familiar backstory for the main villain trying to tie in a religious-heavy backstory to his creation while still staying rooted in Japanese lore which gives this quite a traditional feel overall. With some strong action scenes, quite chilling vampires and a rousing action-packed brawl in the finale that ends this on a high note, there's enough to like here to hold this one up over it's few minor flaws. The film's biggest issue is the focus on overlong, rather dull dialogue-heavy scenes to tell a vast majority of its plot points, leaving this one to feature a rather jerking pace where it's fast and frantic then somewhat slower right after. (8.25/10)

And of course, it's now time to rate them:
1. Legacy of Dracula (9)
2. Evil of Dracula (8.25)
3. Lake of Dracula (7.5)

And with that, time to end this one. Thanks for reading, and we'll see you next time.