Vampire Clay (Japan, 2017)

Following his contribution to the horror anthology The ABCs of Death 2 (2014), make-up artist turned director Soichi Umezama stretches his schlocky sensibility to feature length with Vampire Clay. Given that Umezama has been providing unique prosthetics to movies and television series since the early 1990s, one might assume his recent shift to writer-director stems from a desire to demonstrate a hitherto untapped flair for storytelling, but Vampire Clay plays like a showcase for his practical effects expertise. Still, this unashamedly ridiculous tale of an art school being terrorized by possessed clay evidences enough crazed invention to suggest that Umezama’s career move might pan out if he can start paying as much attention to human characters as to stop motion creatures.

Set in a countryside area, the film starts with an earthquake damaging the Aina Art Academy, a small prep school for students seeking to gain entrance to a prestigious specialist university. Founder and lone instructor Yuri Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) temporarily rents a shack to keep classes going only for the discovery of an old bag of clay powder to lead to a rapid reduction in the already meager student numbers. Once water has been added to the dry material, it comes to life in grotesque fashion, attaching itself to its victims until they become a zombiefied extension of the substance with their bodies now prone to bizarre contortions.

John Carpenter’s version of The Thing (1982) provides the template for how the clay works its way through the makeshift school as, although their bones have become clay, on the outside, victims maintain human form. It’s not particularly suspenseful, though, since the pacing is prone to fits and spurts. There’s an awkwardly inserted flashback involving the shack’s former resident, critically dismissed sculptor Minoru Mitazuka (Shigero Oxe), to explain how the clay became cursed as a result of his bitterness towards the art world. It’s a serviceably handled expository interlude, but one that abruptly interrupts the gleeful mayhem.

This is a film that will be described as ‘messy’ by fans and detractors alike. Umezama introduces classroom politics to run parallel with the monster mash only to carelessly discard them. Horror is a malleable genre when it comes to critiquing institutions or revealing human foibles and the opening credits provide a list of statistics concerning how few applicants get accepted into Japan’s art schools and early scenes establish that students in the sticks are markedly less likely to succeed than their urban counterparts. However, Umezama rarely integrates these issues with the ensuing gore. The idea that working with the evil clay can lead to sudden artistic progression despite its dangers is floated, but not fully utilized considering the competitive nature of the art school environment. Similarly, a potential rivalry between top student Kaori (Kyoka Takeda), who has just returned from a workshop in Tokyo, and the recently enrolled Reiko (Ena Fujita) never comes to a head as Umezama bumps off his cast without consideration for mining underlying personal tensions between ostensible allies.

For hardcore genre enthusiast, though, the gloopily textured effects will more than compensate for the film’s shortcomings. Umezama is clearly besotted with the unrivaled work of Dick Smith, Rob Bottin, and Brian Yuzna, which leads to some squirm inducing practical effects. The manner in which the clay latches on to and then penetrates its victims takes Vampire Clay into Cronenbergian body horror territory, if only superficially, as the film doesn’t find thematic depth in its horrifically detailed aesthetics. During these pulsating transformation sequences, Ko Nakagawa’s insidious synth compositions evoke atmospherics of Lucio Fulci’s high watermarks Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and The Beyond (1981). Umezama’s jerky editing choices distract from the creeping terror but it’s still freakish enough to make one’s jaw drop.

Vampire Clay is at its most creatively paradoxical in its extended denouement with Umezama straining the viewer’s patience by offering several endings before pulling off a truly audacious capper on a presumably shoestring budget. It’s such a humdinger that even those who been mentally noting the film’s copious shortcomings will suddenly find themselves clamoring for a sequel.

Vampire Clay is released in theaters and on VOD from April 20 from Monument Releasing.