This oddly creepy Japanese Golem movie has some great individual moments, with a treatise that art can be so bad that it will devour its creators.
Directed by Sôichi Umezawa
“Art so bad, it kills!”
That’s one hell of a tagline. And for its concept and raw creativeness, Vampire Clay succeeds in delivering a scathing critique of how the Japanese Art School admission process works. The movie begins by slowly revealing the amount of art school admissions versus the amount of applicants at several of Japan’s leading Art Schools, and the numbers show how difficult it is to get into these institutions. I do wonder if the director, Umezawa had a little bit of an autobiographical take here.
Vampire Clay follows Kaori (Kyoka Takeda) who is returning from some art school training in Tokyo to her rural hometown art academy, where she and five other students strive to be one of the lucky admissions to the art institutions. Her teacher, Yuri Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) is a failed product of that schooling, and she is a harsh critic. None of the students are good enough, she declares, and insists that they all improve.
Kaori and her five classmates are sculpting, and Kaori’s clay had been given to one of her classmates while she was away, so she is forced to use a bag of clay discovered by Ms. Aina buried out back. Little does anyone know, but this is sentient clay. Sentient, cursed, vampiric clay! Oh the horror!
Early on, the diabolical plasticine initially plays it sneaky. It snatches a razor blade when nobody is looking and buries it inside itself, a trap for Kaori as she molds her sculptures. Naturally, Kaori ends up cutting herself, and suspects one of her classmates for sabotage and keeps a wary eye out. But now the clay has a taste for blood. Later, the clay is emboldened and ends up consuming the classroom hamster, and none of the students can figure out what happened.
Once the opportunity arrives where the students are alone in the studio, it begins to turn its attention to bigger prey. This is where the movie really shines. Umezawa is a veteran make-up and effects wizard, and this is his specialty. There is a ten-minute sequence, where the first victim gets slowly absorbed, which is quite reminiscent of the Blob. Art becomes all-consuming, quite literally.
The clay engulfs the victims and mimics them, (Umezawa took some cues from The Thing, for sure) though it doesn’t take much to reveal the monster. A smack to the face, and it becomes clear that this is play-dough that you’re fighting with, in some pretty gonzo mash-up moments.
Eventually, it is revealed by a crazy old hermit who buried the clay in the first place, that the clay is the work of a mad and untalented sculptor, who also happened to be working with toxic chemicals as a day job (of course). That madman created a series of impish golems, with massive round heads, beady little eyes, and a huge slit for mouths, like a horrifying Peanuts character. Not surprisingly, nobody wanted these odd statues, and as he was dying from toxic exposure and saddled with insanity, ended up sacrificing himself for his art, giving birth to the vampire clay. Frustrated artist metaphors abound!
Unfortunately, Vampire Clay, despite all its genius impulses, is a flawed production. What Umezawa brings to the table relative to his special effects skills is offset by his inability to create character depth. Apart from Kaori, and Ms. Aina, none of the characters have much personality or make more than a surface impression. No character has anything resembling a story arc to them, and they all share the same motivations, rendering them as mere red-shirts for the clay to consume. It also doesn’t help that all the girls have the same haircut and demeanor, but in the end, it probably doesn’t matter to the story, and that’s a shame.
And, the movie matches its subject in that the overall tone is grey and muddy. Everything smears together. The art direction, something that usually in independent films is a place where the director will attempt to pull out all the stops, is rather drab. Everything is infused with the grey of the clay, and if that was the intent, that’s a bummer. As a metaphor for artistic expression this film should have been a celebration of art and color.
The screenplay is full of B-Movie staples. The plot always conveniently manages to isolate the characters, so nobody knows the secret of the clay until most of the students have been eaten or transformed. These automatons are clay, and therefore SLOW, so running away would be a good solution, but each of the characters, when it comes to the fight or flight response… freezes. And, there’s a bit of “The monster isn’t dead yet” action as well. Tried and true tropes, this movie has plenty of them.
For the fun monster scenes and the terrific effects work, Vampire Clay is worth a watch. The crazy monster sequences are so interesting it overcomes the plot weaknesses. Don’t expect a strong emotional pull to any of the protagonists though, as the writing does not elevate to the level of the make-up work. The movie was successful enough that a sequel is currently in the works and is due for release this year.
Vampire Clay is not rated but would constitute a solid R rating for the gore and body horror effects. It is currently streaming on Amazon. (Free with a Prime Account)