Friday, April 27, 2018

Vampire Clay – review

Director: Sôichi Umezawa

Release date: 2017

Contains spoilers

A slice of Japanese madness, this is indeed a film about clay that would seem to be vampiric. It’s a body horror – though perhaps not as effective as some due to the medium it chooses to use.

On the positive side is the absolute weirdness, and that counted for a lot as I watched, on the negative side is the fact that it fails some basic film aspects, which was unfortunate.

This failure is underlined with the opening, which is a series of stats that show application and admission rates into Japanese art colleges – underlining that it is not an easily achieved ambition. Whilst this difficult hurdle does underscore the film it doesn’t get used particularly well. Similarly backstory for characters is (for all bar a specific exposition) slight to nothing and the film struggles because of this.

Aina Academy
Sensei Aina is at her rural art academy when an earthquake strikes. It breaks a sculpture but, more importantly, cracks the ceiling indicating structural damage. She takes over an old studio, previously owned by a sculptor named Mitazuka. As she is tidying the grounds an earthquake strikes again revealing a box where she is digging. Inside are art equipment and an old bag of clay, which she takes back to the studio.

It is the first day of class and four of her students are there. They are not expecting Kaori, who has been to Tokyo for the summer to study, but she does make an appearance. Everybody, bar her rival Reiko, seem pleased to see her. She arranges to stay for the day but her clay has been given to a new student – so she finds the bag of old clay and re-hydrates it (we see the clay organically flex at one point). Reiko leaves a broken knife blade on the work surface and during the night we see a tentacle of Kaori's clay inch out and take the blade, embedding it within the clay. The next day Kaori cuts her finger on it, dripping blood onto the clay, which is then absorbed.

a drop of blood
This then is the film aping the standard genre trope of someone cutting themselves and dripping blood on the vampire's dust/corpse/bones to bring it back to life. This is an aspect of the film where the lore was confused as, whilst the clay seems to need blood, it is also heavily implied that any fluid will revitalise it too. We will see later that the clay likes to attack the victim through a cut, but simple contact with flesh seems to be enough and we also later hear that it is specifically the victim's bones that the clay utilises to create more clay. Be that as it may, the next night (after Aina berates the class for their lack of skill) the clay attacks the school’s pet mouse, absorbing it (and thus becomes able to mimic it).

Reiko's hand
The next day it looks as though Kaori’s sculpture has been vandalised around the mouth but that makes her more determined to fix it and win (the art pieces produced are graded against each other). We get some backstory for Aina (she was a Tokyo teacher but left when another professor, implied her lover, had an affair) but the film ends up with Reiko staying behind, cutting her finger and the bust Kaori made attacking her.

self absorption 
The clay bust bites her hand and looks to be absorbing her. She eventually gets it off, tries to ring for help but her fingers cannot work her touchscreen as they bend like clay – the clay has converted her hand and, from this, it attacks her further until she is consumed by the clay. There were two things to note here. She gets the clay off herself using fire and, once absorbed, she remains consciously Reiko within the clay (though no-one can see or hear her). Now that Reiko has been absorbed the clay can take her form. Help for the students comes in the form of an old man who knows what happened to start this cycle.

That exposition, when it comes, takes a good slice of time (and the film is only 81 minutes long) – as necessary as this is, it slows the film down and perhaps could have been better utilised (say through it being intercut through the film rather than put in as one lump). I won’t go too deeply into the whole backstory but Mitazuka was both a struggling artist and a worker at a chemical plant and the latter made him ill. Having been betrayed he harvested his own blood from a weeping wound on his cheek and kneaded it into the clay, creating a sculpture called Kakame and vowed that although he was dying Kakame would live and stay alive forever. Whether it was the chemicals in his blood or his force of will that breathed life into Kakame, the film doesn’t say.

polymorphic flesh
So if the characterisation was mostly thin (bar around Mitazuka), and the pacing off (due to a lump of exposition right at the wrong time), it was the effects where this was let down and also shone. The polymorphic flesh was reminiscent of something like The Thing, which was great, but lacked the impact mainly because the film lacked gore. This was down to the fact that it was clay that was being used and thus is rather grey – what the film needed was an organic, bloody aspect. On the other hand, I thought the Kakame figure looked great, the bendy flesh was interesting and the effects helped build towards the weird and it is the weird the film depends on.

more polymorphic flesh
For all its failings I actually rather liked this and it was down to the weirdness. The fact that this is a lump of killer clay was brilliant. There is a moment towards the end, with the victims, that was reminiscent of the Little Shop of Horrors. The clay itself can be stopped with fire/heat drying it out (and then packaging said dried clay up so it can’t hurt anyone) and this had a vampire/ashes aspect to it. The internal logic of the liquid/blood struggled a tad but go with it and let the weirdness carry you along. 5.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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