CUFF Review: Japanese film Vampire Clay moulds horror out of silly premise, goofy monster

It’s Midnight at CUFF — time for a weird Japanese monster movie! And hey, it’s a pretty good one!

I should begin by pointing out that the title is literal. An art instructor and her five students get attacked by a lump of evil modelling clay. No, it isn’t a comedy, but I can see why you would think that.

This certainly sounds novel, although now that I think about it, clay has been used to horrific effect in movies before. Jan Svankmajer’s animations, that creepy figure from The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985) … heck, one of the very first horror movies, The Golem (1915), was about a clay monster. Not important. There are still original ways to make clay scary on film, and Vampire Clay makes a good go of it.

So the evil clay is found buried in a yard, and gets used for art projects when the teacher finds herself short of materials. When nobody is looking, the clay snatches up a bit of razor blade with a ropey tendril, and hides it in its mass, waiting for an artist’s hand to get nicked on it. The clay gets stronger from there, grabbing hands and faces, assuming the appearance of its victims in order to lure more students into its clutches. This early part of the film is delightfully creepy, and the effects are subtle and fleeting enough for the audience to suspend disbelief, and get creeped out by the malevolent presence hidden in the art school.

Then, at last, the full monster is revealed. It looks …well, there’s no other way to put this, folks: It looks goofy. Like a plasticine Charlie Brown. I’m pretty sure the audience is going to laugh. And you know what? That’s fine. The cast are all playing it straight, we’ve gotten all of the genuine suspense out of the way, now let’s all hoot and jeer at the stupid-looking monster. It’s fun! People love ludicrous, unconvincing monsters. This one comes at the perfect time to wake up the late-night audience, and to put everyone into a good mood.

Adjust your expectations to fit an original, silly horror story made with more enthusiasm than cash. I think it’ll work great as a midnight movie.

Vampire Clay screens Friday, April 20 at 11:59 p.m. and Sunday, April 22 at 11 a.m. at the Globe Cinema as part of the Calgary Underground Film Festival. For tickets and more information please click here.

John Tebbutt is the Video Vulture. He has been writing about obscure and ridiculous cinema since 1997. You can keep up with his nonsense on his websiteFacebook and Twitter. Check out the latest episode of his online series here.