Right around the time Hammer finally ended their series of Dracula films, the illustrious Toho studios (of Godzilla fame) began their own series of vampire movies, very much in the same, er vein. Evil of Dracula is probably the best of these, and also the one most obviously influenced by the Hammer cycle, but that doesn't turn out to be a good thing. Evil of Dracula is like a Hammer Dracula film without the payoff, just the interminable build-up and exposition.
Professor Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa, who would also appear in Last Days of Planet Earth) is a colorless schlub from Tokyo who has been invited to become a teacher at a remote school for girls somewhere in Japan. Take our word for it, the lapels on his stolen Columbo trench coat have more personality than he does. This is 1974, however, so his lapels have more personality than the entire cast of a John Sayles film. As the film begins Shiraki meets his new boss, The Principal (Kunie Tanaka), who recently lost his wife in a car crash. Or did he? The Principal nonchalantly tells Shiraki that, in accordance with local customs, he still has his wife's body in the basement. There she will remain for a week, because "there is always the hope, however vain, that the corpse will come back to life." Shiraki takes this as his cue to leave, goes home, and opens a ramen stand.
"Well, we've done everything else...
maybe this could fight Godzilla!"
No, wait, we just slipped into an alternate dimension where the characters in horror films act like normal people. Shiraki actually agrees to stay the night in the residence with the dead wife in that basement. That night, Shiraki is attacked by a woman in a flowing white robe. He passes out and wakes up the next morning in bed. Was it all a dream? Shiraki decides not to take the chance, so he sets the house on fire.
Damn, slipped into that other dimension again. Shiraki actually goes down into the basement to see if the dead wife is really dead. She is, which is a bit of a disappointment, because we were hoping something interesting would happen. The Principal catches Shiraki ogling the corpse and throws the obviously disturbed man out on his ear.
Will we never escape that wacky alternate dimension? The Principal actually has breakfast with Shiraki and offers to let him be the next principal! We know Japan is a strange place, but even so this is twisted. "Hi, I just found you engaged in a bit of possible necrophilia with my wife's corpse, but I think you're just the man to replace me as headmaster of a girls' school." Shiraki defers an answer until he can get to know the school a little better. Finally! Something an actual person might do.
Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart
make a cameo appearance.
Shiraki starts teaching psychology at the school. On one hand you have to respect the economy of the middle portion of the film, which barely wastes a second on any character who isn't directly related to the vampiric goings on. Shiraki talks to only three students, who are all roommates and one of whom later becomes a vampire. The school doctor studies vampire lore in his spare time, which leads to a flashback about the origins of vampires. This short sequence is the highlight of the movie, as we find out that vampirism was brought to Japan when an apostate missionary drank his own blood to survive in the desert. Finally there's the French teacher, who acts as both a kind of Renfield and a red herring.
The third act of the film gets underway after the Japanese equivalent of spring break occurs, and everyone leaves the school, except for our primary characters and the three aforementioned students. Soon the Principal has bitten one of the girls, and the fun can begin, if watching Japanese people chase each other around the woods for half an hour is your idea of fun.
If that's not enough to get your cinematic motor revving, consider the bizarrely inappropriate Sixties-lounge music which plays beneath the action. It is often playful during somber scenes, or off the mood of the film in other ways. This was only a source of confusion until we looked up the composer: Riichiro Manabe, the man also responsible for the wacked-out tunes in Godzilla vs the Smog Monster. The trouble is, in Smog Monster the music was at least complemented by the psychedelic visuals on screen. In a tepid vampire flick like this, the music only draws attention to itself. We suppose this is an advantage if you're dead set on watching this movie from beginning to end at least you have something on which to focus your attention beside the inaction on screen but for most viewers, it will merely be further incentive to turn off the TV set.
"What's that? A vampiress?
In this room? Where, Yoko, where?!"
Evil of Dracula was originally known as The Bloodthirsty Rose, which fits a bit better with the movie's plot and themes and the fact that Dracula never makes an appearance. Say what you will about the cheesiness of Hammer's Dracula movies, when the title mentioned the big guy, you could usually count on seeing the vamp himself. This film relies merely on the Principal (who is never named, perhaps to create the illusion that's he is Dracula) and his covey of undead lovelies. Not that it isn't a perfectly frightening idea, combining two of the most feared figures in the world the school principal and the vampire but Kunie Tanaka comes closer to an aging Mr. Rogers than a menacing bloodsucker. (Please feel free to insert your own joke equating Mr. Rogers to a menacing bloodsucker. We have too many fond memories of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to stoop quite that low.) The one thing that Evil of Dracula brought to the table, judging from still shots we've seen, is some female nudity. Unfortunately for us, all such scenes were cut from the copy we saw.
Evil of Dracula suffers miserably when compared to its Hammer predecessors, but the slavish imitation of Hammer's style and subject matter makes such comparisons impossible to avoid. The atmosphere is vaguely creepy, true, and it is a story about vampires preying on helpless schoolgirls, sure, but what's missing are the Hammer hallmarks of quality: superb cinematography, actors surely too good for the penny-dreadful material, and witty (if slow-paced) dialogue. Hammer Films often make us feel as if quality filmmakers were forced by economics to participate in genre projects. Evil of Dracula just makes us feel that the quality filmmakers moved on to better things.