Studio: Monument Releasing
Director: Soichi Umezawa
Writer: Soichi Umezawa
Producer: Soichi Umezawa, Yoshihiro Nishimura
Stars: Kyoka Takeda, Momoka Sugimoto, Ena Fujita, Yuyu Makihara, Ryo Shinoda, Shigeru Oxe, Kanji Tsuda, Asuka Kurosawa
A creature made of cursed clay haunts the young students of a countryside art academy.
I wasn’t sure what to make of “Vampire Clay” before watching it. All the intrigue anyone could want exists in its off-the-wall premise of cursed clay creating a creature that terrorizes a rural Japan art school. Yet caution comes from the poster art, seemingly fresh from a Full Moon Photoshop file, depicting what looks like a child’s cherubic stick figure given 3D shape shooting tiny flames from its eyes. Overhead sit three one-word pull quotes, all of which say the same thing: “bonkers.” Don’t forget the groan-worthy tagline, “art so bad, it kills!” Could that be a cheeky reference jabbing at the film itself?
The impression built in my mind was of a madcap midnight movie full of the kind of insanity and inanity that could only come from an unhinged Japanese wild man. E.g. something along the lines of “House,” “Tokyo Gore Police,” or “Meatball Machine Kodoku” (review here), except made with more moxie than money. Mixed reviews from its festival run additionally conditioned me to expect an outsider effort that would be predictably polarizing for its irreverence, or worse, complete carelessness in considering a coat of professional polish. In other words, “Vampire Clay” had the earmarks of a snarky amateur flick that would quickly drown in a DTV stream if it originated in America.
The eccentric experience I steeled myself for turned out to not be in step with what writer/director Soichi Umezawa’s first feature film delivers. Oh, “Vampire Clay” is inarguably unusual, occasionally silly, and often cuts so many corners that teeth cannot help but grit. But it also contains a precise pinch of organic oddness that sands down those rough edges.
Not too much needs to be said to summarize the story. An art teacher who has effectively exiled herself to a countryside studio works with five students whom the odds are against for acceptance into a prestigious Tokyo art academy. Bigger problems are en route when a landscaping errand uncovers a box buried outside. Ms. Aina’s new studio once belonged to a strange sculptor, and the supplies he left behind should have been vaulted in the Curious Goods basement. Instead, the mystery man’s sentient clay has reawakened, and its ability to shift shapes means no one is safe from its bloodlust.
Taking all of the above into account, “Vampire Clay” sounds like it should contain just as much humor as it does horror. After all, how can a movie featuring a cartoonish goblin assimilating struggling young artists into its stop-motion body be anything but a gory gag? Yet instead of being blackly comedic, the film plays every preposterous piece with a strictly straight face, and that’s exactly why it winds up working so well.
“Vampire Clay” achieves the rare feat of feeling like a throwback ‘80s B-movie without relying on self-aware winks, a synthesized score, phony film scratches, or any of the other artificial tricks films force to fit when looking for a similar texture. “Vampire Clay” just naturally acquires a vibe akin to “Critters,” “Puppet Master,” even “Child’s Play” to some extent, by deliberately not overemphasizing inherent goofiness. It has old school Charles Band charm without the same level of cheesiness in its cheapness.
Of course, DNA like that means “Vampire Clay” has its fair share of issues in terms of both narrative and execution. Umezawa sets up a surprising number of subplots like a rivalry between two students or a romantic betrayal influencing their instructor’s career path. Then he either throws away these threads or allows them to unravel through curious scene arrangement choices. Umezawa’s sense of pacing loses its place more than once, erecting road bumps where events like mistimed character deaths knock the story out of sequence.
Effects aren’t so hot either. Discounting the main monster’s appearance, where a rudimentary design accounts for a large part of its unlikely appeal, choppy animation teeters the movie closet to the edge of having more silliness than it can handle. Presentation takes another ding from a flat color scheme to cinematography that makes murky darks incredibly hard to see.
Now that the cons have been itemized, we can return to appreciating “Vampire Clay” for its pros. I maintain that by creatively incorporating a carefully calculated amount of weirdness, “Vampire Clay” hits a sweet spot of satisfaction between fun and freaky. Soichi Umezawa zips in enough zany directions that his movie gets somewhat muddled. But sincerity in the absurdity adds stylishness that tickles memories of a time when meager monster movies made pure entertainment a top priority.
NOTE: The film’s Japanese title is “Chi o su nendo.”
Review Score: 75