Some Japanese horror movies are achingly sincere and slow-burn to the point of tedium. ‘Vampire Clay’ is absolutely not one of those movies. Directed by makeup and effects artist Sôichi Umezawa, the film is an absolute romp and an homage to the goofy latex rubber horror movies of the 1980s. If you long for the physical charm of rubber monsters and gore, ‘Vampire Clay’ is an ideal way to kill an evening with some jumps and giggles.
The setting is the Japanese countryside, in a preparatory class for students hoping to attend one of the country’s great art schools. It’s so competitive that the students sabotage each other and their teacher constantly calls them failures. One day, the teacher scrapes some clay off a nearby mountain for her students to use in sculpture class. Big mistake. That clay is possessed by an evil spirit, you see. It either absorbs or eats those who come in contact with it, and occasionally transforms into a creepy featureless statue that will (wait for it) also eat anyone in sight. In other words, those students are in trooooouuuuble.
Obviously, there’s a little social satire here. This is a tale of hyper competitive art students willing to destroy and absorb each other to survive. That’s all there and fairly obvious, adding a little extra subtext and humor to a movie that is primarily about connecting set-pieces. They’re glorious set-pieces, though. Using a mixture of puppetry, models and other old-fashioned tricks, Umezawa puts together a delightful rubbery monster mash. The kill scenes are charmingly goopy. Reality barely feels present. It’s a romp designed to make viewers laugh and squirm more than scream and panic.
It’s clear that Umezawa is a student of the VHS trashy horror era. He creates a movie dripping in homage. Were it not for the rather cheap digital cinematography, ‘Vampire Clay’ could easily feel like a lost ’80s relic somehow found collecting dust in an abandoned Japanese Blockbuster store. It also isn’t something that you’d feel surprised was lost for all those years. As creative as the designs and kills are throughout, the movie shoots straight for the middle. It’s not particularly brilliant or particularly sleazy. The movie gets laughs and smiles and then disappears long before the novelty wears off. That’s fine. Those who enjoy such things will find it and get their jollies. Anyone else wouldn’t even know this thing exists.