Vampire Clay (Chi o sû nendo) (2017)

Vampire Clay (Chi o sû nendo) first published by SciFiNow

“I don’t want to lose my individuality to convention.”

These words, uttered by one of five students in a new rural prep school for Tokyo’s hyper-competitive fine arts courses, cuts to the heart of Soichi Umezawa’s feature debut Vampire Clay (Chi o sû nendo). For while the film is certainly built, as its very title signals, upon familiar horror conventions (not only vampires but also the slasher, demonology and even, towards the end, the city-destroying kaiju), Umezawa remoulds all of these into something peculiar and highly individual – ensuring that Vampire Clay, concerned as it is with the transformative potential of the plastic arts, is also a film about itself and its own fictile forms.

As these five wannabe sculptors bicker and fret about their chances of getting into a prestigious Tokyo university, and deal in petty rivalries and little romances, their hapless, bitter teacher Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) questions her own ability to shape her young wards into great artists. Yet when she discovers, bagged and buried in the woods outside, some clay with its own history connected to another artist who had once lived there, she inadvertently unleashes a demonic blood-sucking creature (realised, of course, through claymation) which absorbs – but also embodies and expresses – all the characters’ provincial ambitions to take Tokyo by storm.

Cribbing from countless slash-and-dash flicks (our clay killer likes to stab his prey before grotesquely assimilating them), but also from the stop-motion sections of Eraserhead (1977) and the body horror of David Cronenberg, Vampire Clay brings all kinds of freak to its frights. Sure the performances are a little overplayed (not that this did Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House any harm), and sure the many scenes of flight-and-fight are not as varied as the monster’s Protean form – but this film of eerie earthenware and earthworms-that-turn comes with enough individuality and eccentricity, if not downright idiosyncrasy, to earn itself the sort of appreciation (and, no doubt from some, abhorrent rejection) that typically greets products of outsider art.

© Anton Bitel