"Lake of Dracula" (1971) Review
Man, this is the true definition of a mixed bag.
Make no mistake, Lake of Dracula has some incredible horror high points during its runtime. From a good old "hide in the closet from the monster" scene to some drowning Gothic atmosphere, the film really digs its hooks into the viewer right from the beginning. The film opens with a killer prologue where a little girl looking for her runaway dog takes a vampiric turn, but not before drenching the film in beautiful golden sunlight and a blood red sky. The film is absolutely gorgeous, and the imagery is all accompanied by what I'll describe as a "horror jazz" soundtrack. That might sound bad, but in execution, it's stunningly effective.
The story is also kind of a mess.
A lot of great stories rely on coincidence, but Lake of Dracula leans into coincidence a bit too hard for its own good. The plot concerns Akiko (Midori Fujita), a school teacher who's haunted by a "nightmare" from her childhood, the aforementioned prologue scene. Her peaceful life living with her sister, Natsuko (Sanae Emi), is interrupted when her neighbors and friends start disappearing or acting violently. Akiko is convinced her childhood nightmare has something to do with it, but isn't sure if she's sane, especially with her skeptical boyfriend around, Takashi (Chôei Takahashi).
I'll give this movie credit for two major pieces of its plot: One, the centering of the story around Akiko's trauma. For the 1970s, it's surprisingly well handled, even when the movie threatens sexual violence at one point (which, thankfully, the movie does not follow through on). Akiko is a sympathetic character, and the movie goes to great pains to keep her that way.
Two, the use of the "skeptical boyfriend" trope. The skeptical boyfriend always feels like a complete asshole in movies like these, but Takashi feels pretty reasonable and drops the skepticism a lot faster than other characters of his type. His support of Akiko in the movie's second half feels ahead of its time in some ways (and admittedly very VERY retrograde in others). But I liked his character a lot more than I thought I would from the outset. Color me impressed.
As for the rest of the story? I won't go to deep into spoiler territory, but the way the film jumps to conclusions is stunningly weird, and not in a good way. You know you're in trouble once the Takashi, a doctor of medical science, pulls out hypnosis and performs a borderline Freudian psychoanalysis of Akiko to awkwardly get the movie to the third act. Tied into that plot revelation is a sub-plot involving Akiko's sister, Natsuko, that should have made more screen time or development to really work.
But when the movie shoves the story off to the side for the lead evil vampire to take center stage, it really hits its mark. The movie will strip out the soundtrack completely for some really impressive for the time sound design that's scary as hell. A sequence involving an unlocked door caught by the wind is truly nerve wracking. The cinematography for these sequences feels expertly timed on top of that, with great tight shots that last for brutally uncomfortable lengths of time.
The horror sequences feel modern in a way that totally blindsided me, especially for a film literally called Lake of Dracula (and that it was produced by Toho in the 1970s, the studio behind the Godzilla films). The story is riddled with weird contrivances, but the acting is convincing enough on the whole to keep you rolling with the punches.
Lake of Dracula suffers from truly bizarre plotting, but pays off massively during its pure horror sequences. This is not some kind of schlocky good time to chuckle your way through, but a legitimate stab at the vampire film that has a distinct voice that's definitely worth seeing if you're a horror fan. Just brace yourself for that hypnotism scene, because that's when the movie's story begins to come apart at the seams.