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Toronto Film Review: ‘Vampire Clay’

An evil pile of modeling clay terrorizes a rural art school in Soichi Umezawa's schlocky feature debut.

Soichi Umezawa
Kyoka Takeda, Momoka Sugimoto, Ena Fujita, Yuyu Makihara, Asuka Kurosawa. (Japanese dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt7026370/

In “Y Is for Youth,” his segment in the horror anthology “The ABCs of Death 2,” makeup artist-cum-director Soichi Umezama turned a teenager’s malevolent fantasies against her careless, neglectful parents into a five-minute showcase for his hand-crafted stop-motion creations: A woman transformed into a rabid dog, a french-fry vacuum cleaner head, a screen-filling middle finger. Umezama’s first feature, “Vampire Clay,” is 16 times longer and half as inventive, despite a premise that’s irresistibly silly and a central effect that’s infinitely malleable in its possibilities. A sinister pile of modeling clay could be anything, after all, but Umezama’s ersatz “Evil Dead 2” knockoff imagines few compelling forms for a plasticine demon that terrorizes a rural art school. Despite a high-profile launch at TIFF’s Midnight Madness and Fantastic Fest, the film’s shoddy craftsmanship stands to limit its schlock appeal.

The notion of “vampire clay” is a fun thought experiment, and Umezama seems to intend it that way, too, embracing both the utter ridiculousness of sentient hunks of plasticine and its endless creative applications. After all, every sculpture begins with the raw materials, so it makes sense for a film with claymation effects to make the clay itself a natural starting point. It also gives the director the freedom to comment on the art world and the difficulties outsiders have in winning favor with the big-city elite. In fact, inasmuch as “Vampire Clay” opens, strangely, with a list of statistics noting how few applicants get accepted into art school; the film could be read as the bloody, vengeful jeremiad of a rejected would-be student.

The screenplay eventually gets into the convoluted origin story of the vampire clay — it has something to do with a crummy sculptor working with toxic dust — but it first appears after an earthquake pushes it out of the ground and into the hands of a rural art-school instructor (Asuka Kurosawa). Thinking nothing of how she came to possess this mysterious bag, she makes its contents available to her students, who are each struggling for a chance to be discovered. When one of them adds water to the clay dust, it enhances her sculpting abilities immensely, but at a mortal price. When the lights go down, the clay shapes itself into a wet, pulsating, Cronenbergian blob that attaches itself to victims like a Chinese finger trap, consuming them further the more they try to fend it off. Only a blast of fire can return it back to a harmless dirt pile — otherwise, it’s unstoppable.

The one ingenious technical touch here is that the clay turns the bodies of its victims into a zombified extension of itself, reducing human bones and musculature to a wobbly, stretchy, dead-eyed Mr. Fantastic. There might have been some entertainment value in watching these slurping beasties devour a classroom full of bickering artists, but Umezawa’s feats of stop-motion are undermined by his incoherent staging and editing, which substitute manic energy for the nuts-and-bolts of building tension and clarifying action. “Vampire Clay” is not exactly a surefire conceit, but a little care would have gone a long way.

As it stands, the film has a better chance taking root in the imagination than in theaters, because the idea of vampire clay is so much more potent than actually watching it in action. Nothing this absurd should be this boring.

Toronto Film Review: 'Vampire Clay'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 11, 2017. Running time: 81 MIN.

Production: A King Record Co. production. (International sales: King Record Co., Tokyo) Producers: Yukihiko Yamaguchi, Soichi Umezawa, Yoshihiro Nishimura. Executive producer: Yamaguchi.

Crew: Director, writer: Soichi Umezawa. Camera (color, widescreen): Shintaro Kuriyama. Editor: Umezawa. Music: Koh Nakagawa

With: Kyoka Takeda, Momoka Sugimoto, Ena Fujita, Yuyu Makihara, Asuka Kurosawa. (Japanese dialogue)

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