Art school can be one stressful environment. Teachers look at your project, tell you it sucks and make you start over without granting any more time to complete the assignment, while competitive peers hover over your shoulder and whisper you’re a failure in an attempt to psych you out. Japanese director Sôichi Umezama (ABCs of Death 2) pushes that paranoia and insecurity one step further by making the very medium of the art itself out for blood in his first feature, Vampire Clay.
“…the main monster looks a little like a Muppet designed for Japanese cuteness.”
The premise is simple enough: Students in a rural art school bicker while sculpting in clay, hoping to one day be accepted to an exclusive art institute. A recent arrival finds that another student has swiped the clay from her bucket, so she looks for another batch and finds an unmarked plastic bag of powder, which she uses for her projects. Of course, this is the clay of the title. It attacks slowly at first, causing her to cut herself so it can absorb her blood, but soon it gains strength and students go missing. You probably think you know where this is going, and you’d be both right and wrong. Umezawa’s screenplay plays with horror conventions and takes the story in crazy directions, ultimately paying tribute to Japan’s most universally known export.
Stylistically, the film jumps around. The first third recalls early ‘80s Italian films, like any of the Zombie sequels, which aped American stereotypes, but were too European to be convincing. Once it gets going, however, it shifts to something along the lines of David Cronenberg if he directed for Troma, i.e. disgusting and completely ridiculous. Then there’s a flashback sequence containing shades of Jean Rollin’s emotional turbulence as the story of how the clay came to be unfolds. While the transitions between styles aren’t completely seamless, they’re not so jarring as to detract from the overall story.
“…it’s hard to imagine Umezawa being completely serious while filming a flailing puppet monster that’s been strapped to a wall.”
At its core, Vampire Clay is a monster movie and as such it relies heavily on special effects. Umezawa worked in makeup and prosthetics for over twenty years prior to directing and his love for the craft shows. His creations are fun and exciting, even silly and cartoonish at times – the main monster looks a little like a Muppet designed for Japanese cuteness – but that’s exactly what makes the film so endearing.
A lot of people are questioning whether or not the film is intentionally funny. While it goes to some dark places, it’s hard to imagine Umezawa being completely serious while filming a flailing puppet monster that’s been strapped to a wall. Monster movies are always a bit tongue-in-cheek going all the way back to the days of the guy in a rubber suit. Their goal is to make you smile and cheer when something crazy happens. In that regard, Vampire Clay succeeds.
Vampire Clay (2017) Written and directed by Sôichi Umezama. Starring Ena Fujita, Asuka Kurosawa, Yuyu Makihara, Ryô Shinoda, Momoka Sugimoto, Kyôka Takeda and Kanji Tsuda. Sneak preview presented by Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.
4.5 out of 5 stars