A plasticine demon devours the denizens of a rural art school.
How innocent the fun is in being a kid. Especially those times when you had Play-Doh in your hands and could create. For most kids, like me for example, the end results showed little promise of becoming the next great sculptor. It was a rock, a ball or, at best, an ash tray done with love in mind if not detailed vision. Now, if you had an artistic eye in your genetics, that blue-colored model of George Washington might just’ve ended up the prize of the school art fair and beyond. You would also, likely be graduating to real clay and prepping your speech for the day you open at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Well, Japanese director Soichi Umezawa throws in a new wrinkle with the clay itself being demonically possessed in his 2017 Vampire Clay because A) it’s a horror film and B) he can. It’s a deliriously-styled ride with plenty of heady, meaning-stamped visuals and over-the-top gore to please both the discerning cineaste and splatter junkie within us at the same time.
The twisted, dream-like plot has a teacher opening up a very small art school in the country outside Tokyo. While planting shrubs outside the structure, she comes across a mysterious mound of clay wrapped in a plastic bag. She stores it but one of her students stumbles upon it and starts to use it. Turns out the clay glob is alive, infused with the blood and spirit of a frustrated and failed sculptor who died years ago, and subsists on the blood and bone of humans. It begins decimating the small class, taking over and assuming the appearance of its victims as it goes. The instructor fights to save both herself and her charges.
Surprise, surprise! The use of practical fx takes precedence over any cgi. During an interview with Dread Central, Umezawa explains while also dropping an old Jewish horror legend as an inspiration of sorts. “I specialize in special makeup effects and I like metamorphose and molding so I decided to use the clay. And I could only think of the film that clay attacking people was Golem so I started to think that it would be fun to approach from different prospect.” Even with the clay connection (one of the more popular narratives has a 16th century Prague Rabbi create the Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River in order to avenge the oppressed Jews from the wrath of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II), a rural area near Tokyo is not exactly next door to to Prague and there weren’t any mosques nearby that I could spot.
Still, there may be an allusion to the class oppression of sorts as represented by the poor sculptor who is doublecrossed and duped by a conniving businessman. Also feeling rejection from the uppercrust art community, the artist and con man tussle and the former is killed and his blood mingles with the clay, beginning a reign of vengeance. I got the feeling of a part of the sculptor’s spirit being inside the clay and seeking to kill the students as part of a plan to create one final sculpted masterwork from within. There’s a sequence late in the piece where the blob shows the visages of each of his victims around its surface. It is the most disturbing, yet hauntingly beautiful image one is likely to see.
There is plenty of gore for the hounds out there and, though I’m often refreshed when a filmmaker doesn’t linger on the blood and guts, I was quite satisfied that Umezawa does here. In fact, there is a certain savage poetry that he puts to it. Part of the practical fx the helmer has plied his trade on for so long now. There is very little in the way of computer graphics here. It is mostly hand-held puppetry, blood tube spurts and the like.
The director is so much in love with the old school feel, he even grants a certain forgiveness if any of it seems fake. “Even the practical FX/molding are not so well-made. The person who is moving those practical FX’s habit, the hand-made/craft-making feeling of the person who is trying hard to move the puppet, the haunted-house feeling of the person who is pumping the blood from the backside, those kind of live, playful feeling, especially those playful things that adults might get mad…I feel bonded to those.”
The cast gives just enough conviction to the roles. The stars Ena Fujita, Asuka Kurosawa, and Yuyu Makihara offer an earnestness that counterbalances the absurd storyline nicely. There’s even a bit of depth to the instructor character courtesy of some well-timed flashbacks that show a disintegration in her marriage and provides background to her own self-esteem issues. The screenplay, also by Umezawa, shines the light a bit on the personal jealousies of students and the drives to succeed in creative vocations.
So, as I fondly reminisce about the red and blue funny faces I made with my play-doh after my day in Kindergarten those many years ago, and I wonder what would’ve happened had it come alive and chomped on my classmates and I. I would’ve either been dead or the most popular kid in school! Whether you have ambitions of clay art or just love a good scare show, why not watch something that offers ingredients of both? Albeit one that is put through a nightmare mixer first.