These students may not have been with artistic talent, but they’re definitely dying from it.
Not all horror/comedies are created equal, and while that’s most often evident in their resulting quality it’s also a truth in their intent and execution. Some put horror first and find the laughs along the way, and others are more interested in delivering a comedy with monsters and/or monstrous moments. Whichever path they take, it often comes down to the tonal balance between the two.
Vampire Clay, the debut feature from Soichi Umezawa (The ABCs of Death 2), takes itself very seriously on its surface but delivers more than a few laughs all the same.
The premise is every bit as silly and literal as the title suggests. After an earthquake damages a small town’s art school the local teacher (Asuka Kurosawa) rents a rural shack to continue her classes, but the art turns deadly when a student starts using some old clay found buried in the earth. After adding water and shape to the dry material it’s left for the night and begins to awaken. It comes to life in Cronenbergian-fashion with phallic extensions and a flesh-sucking mass, and when it takes its victims they become zombified creatures intent on spreading the clay-tastic curse to others.
It’s pretty straight forward with the focus on the teacher and her students alternately fighting off and being turned by the clay creatures, and Umezawa keeps things visually engaging with some fun effects work. The killer clay is a mix of prosthetics and stop-motion, the latter of which he demonstrated to creative effect in his “Y Is for Youth” short in The ABCs of Death 2. The film manages some fun, bloody moments befitting its tone as a goofy creature feature rather than a horror film out to scare or unsettle.
That tone continues in Umezawa’s script which, again, has its characters playing it straight through all of the mayhem but with more than a little bit of absurd detachment. As one zombie attacks a male student he rips its face off to reveal that of his fellow student beneath — to which says “Oh hi!” They’re all fighting for the lives, but their dialogue occasionally suggests it’s just another challenging day in art class.
Both the horror and the comedy work well enough to keep the film entertaining for fans of goofy genre efforts and old-school effects work, but the script seems to be trying for something more. The film opens with onscreen text about how competitive it is getting into Tokyo’s art schools while rural locales have a higher acceptance (percentage) rate. The teacher is revealed to hold a severe grudge against the big city art school scene, and that jealousy leads into the ending. It’s an oddly empty commentary though as there’s no real criticism to be found and instead feels born from bitter truths regarding talent itself.
The film’s biggest hurdles ultimately come down to budget, time spent on back story, and its ending. The low budget forces Umezawa into some corners, but its small scale and limited scope also work to create a charming little monster movie. The flashbacks to explore the clay’s origins lack the present day’s energy and character work leaving viewers with exposition that’s as dry as the discovered clay.
Still, it’s all pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a movie called Vampire Clay. The ending is a different story, though, as what should have been a simple stinger instead becomes no fewer than five “endings” on its way to what should have been the only one. Cut ten minutes from the final twenty and the movie ends with fans still fully on board. As it stands? Not so much.