Having broken into direction with the Y is for Youth segment of ABCs of Death (2014) followed by the sci-fi horror short Thorn (2015), Vampire Clay marks the feature-length debut of Soichi Umezawa as both a writer and director. Prior to making his directorial debut Umezawa had cut his filmic teeth as the special effects make-up artist on several Japanese TV mini-series such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2016) and Samurai High School (2009-2010) as well as features including The Hybrid (2015) and Humanoid Monster, Bem the Movie (2012), So it will come as no big surprise to discover that the highly-imaginative Vampire Clay features some heavy-duty prosthetics and make-up effects.

Drawn in part from his own personal experience as a prospective art student (he never went in the end), most of the action in Vampire Clay takes place at a private cramming school for prospective sculpture students who are hoping to get in to the prestigious Tokyo School of Art. As the film opens Yuri Aina (Asuka Kurosawa), the school’s tough principal, discovers a bag of clay fragments buried in a box that she digs up in the academy grounds. Thinking nothing much of it, the bag is casually discarded in corner of the studio when she sets to work with the four new students of that year’s intake. When Kaori (Kyoko Takeda) turns up late from Tokyo to take her place in the class, she discovers that her new classmates have already used up all the studio’s clay on their own works, so she has no alternative but to re-hydrate that bag of dried up clay fragments that Mrs Aina had so cavalierly discarded if she is to make a start.

Naturally, given that this is a horror movie, this is Kaori’s big mistake. These are no ordinary discarded clay fragments since the contents of the box contained the crushed remains of the final work of the studio’s former owner Mr Mizuki. Now, poor old Mr. Mizuki had never been recognised as a great artist during his lifetime and had to combine his sculpting with a job as a toxic waste inspector to make ends meet, so I think we can see the sort of direction we are heading into. It only takes an unfortunate accident with a broken art knife blade to revive the sentient clay’s taste for human blood and pretty soon Kaori and her classmates find themselves on the menu, which is precisely where Umezawa’s experience in the special effects and make-up department is brought so effectively to the fore.

Umezawa fully utilises his skills to take play upon the clay’s malleable qualities, allowing the creature to take any form it wants. Whether this involves probing with worm-like tentacles, the wholesale engulfing of a victim, or even becoming a fully-formed replicate of the victim in order to fool their classmates. In this way, together with the fact that much of the action takes place within the closed and claustrophobic environment of the sculpture studio, it is not unlike the alien creature from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). But Vampire Clay is more than just an art school-based retread of Carpenter’s classic movie. Umzawa uses the clay’s soft malleability to inject a dose of hilarious slapstick humour into the proceedings when the students get to fight back against the monster with the everyday objects that they are surrounded with in Aina’s studio space. Fleshy parts are easily torn away and gruesomely reformed into mad shapes on the remaining human body, while tools and other objects find themselves embedded in the clay, merging Re-Animator (1986) and Evil Dead (1981) style body horror with the sort of gag payoffs that are worthy of a Tom and Jerry or Loony Tunes cartoon.

The young cast all work well together within what is, despite the unusual nature of the monster, essentially a splatterstick body count movie. The well-established character tropes are set up, complete with those individuals that we want to live fighting for survival alongside the one or two that we are only too delighted to see rubbed out before the final curtain. Vampire Clay is a well paced creature feature chiller, which with a modest 80-minute running time, has not enough time to spare to allow the action to grow slack. The horror factor is nicely constructed and paced from the initial writhing dread of the creature’s awakening and probing with its slimy appendages right up to the full blown splatter of the final confrontation, with the odd jump scare along the way, while the conclusion takes off in a bit of an unexpected direction. It also has a cracking musical score by Kou Nakagawa.

Gruesome, messy and a whole lot of fun, I highly recommend Vampire Clay