The original Vampire Hunter D seems to receive a pretty polarized reaction when mentioned among horror and animation enthusiasts. Those who like it really like it and those who hate it really hate it. I suppose you can count me among the former, as I adore every cheesy and dated drop of this horror-fantasy cartoon from the ‘80s. It actually got me into the original novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi which have been wonderfully translated by Dark Horse Publishing and are well worth a look if you’re into epic vampire literature.
Vampire Hunter D (1985, Urban Vision)
In the distant future, a desolated Earth is ruled over by vampires known as “Nobility”. On the far reaches of the frontier, a beautiful young woman named Doris (Barbara Goodson) finds herself bitten by the five thousand year-old vampire Count Magnus Lee (Jeff Winkless). To escape becoming one of the vampire’s brides, Doris enlists the aid of the dhampir vampire hunter known as D (Michael McConnohie). The enigmatic half-vampire is soon put to work, as Magnus Lee unleashes his hordes of unsightly monsters upon Doris’ farm, including the space-warping boomerang-fighter Rei Ginsei (Kerrigan Mahan).
Vampire Hunter D is one of the first of its kind, or at least, one of the first of its kind to ever set foot on American soil. Hardcore epic horror-fantasy animation wasn’t exactly a genre that was in-demand over here, so when it finally arrived it knocked our socks off (or mine, anyway). Along with the likes of the The Guyver and Devilman it was one of my first forays into the world of Japanese horror animation from the ‘80s and I still enjoy it to this very day.
Ashi Productions’ animation is noticeably dated. Very noticeably dated. I don’t hold that against the movie, as it’s a product of its time, and this sort of style was very popular back then. Director Toyoo Ashida loves the gore, there’s no doubt about that (this is the guy that directed the hilariously over-the-top Fist of the North Star animated film, after all). There’s so much blood and guts in this movie you can’t help but wonder if half the animation budget was invested in red paint. They adapt Yoshitaka Amano’s art from the novels admirably, perhaps making D look a little less feminine (which I approve of), and the rest of the art design is quite good as well.
The dub is of fairly uneven quality, as with most dubs of Japanese animation from this time period. Michael McConnohie is a great voice actor and isn’t terrible as D, though at times he plays the role with a little too much energy, while D is supposed to be perpetually stoic. Count Magnus Lee (named after Christopher Lee, star of Hammer’s Dracula franchise) probably comes off the best, with Jeff Winkless’ subtle Romanian accent and deep, growling voice being suitably threatening. D’s left hand (referred to affectionately as the “countenanced carbuncle” in the novels) was one of my favorite characters in the books, and McConnohie (IMDB claims its Kirk Thornton, but McConnohie assures us it was himself) plays him with the right touch of humor and menace here. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t get enough to say or do in this story for my taste.
I’ve read the first volume in Kikuchi’s novel series, of which this film is an adaptation, and I have to say that they adapted it quite nicely. They condense it fairly well, save for a few issues (which I’ll address in a minute). Some stuff gets left by the wayside, unfortunately. Probably the biggest alteration is made in regards to Rei Ginsei. In the novel he traveled with a group of mutant mercenaries and was hired by Magnus Lee. While Rei Ginsei’s teammates all appear in the movie (the giant, the glider, the spider-guy and the old witch), no such connection is made between them and Rei Ginsei. Additionally, Rei Ginsei manages to halfway redeem himself at the end by rescuing Doris’ little brother, Dan (Lara Cody) from a fall, while in the book he’s bad to the bone.
Another thing altered from the book is the presence of crucifixes. They are used frequently here, but in the book it is explained that through mass hypnotism, the Nobility keeps humans from realizing the power of crucifixes and garlic.
Lastly, some moments lose context through a lack of narration, leading to some serious “what the f--k?” situations. The major perpetrator being the scene where D’s left hand begins devouring dirt for no readily apparent reason. In the books it is explained that D has an internal power generator that works by having his left hand ingest earth, fire, wind and water (or in this case, just earth and wind).
Aside from some dated animation and a mediocre English dub, if there’s one thing troubling Vampire Hunter D it would have to be the structure of the plot and the pacing. Doris is kidnapped and rescued a whopping three times in this film, which can get both redundant and annoying over the course of eighty minutes. It isn’t quite as noticeably irritating when it’s spread out over a three hundred-page novel, but when condensed into a film it can really get on your nerves.
Vampire Hunter D is a cheesy and gratuitously violent product of Japanese ‘80s animation, but I can’t help but love it. If you’re looking for a real quality piece of animation then I’d more strongly suggest that you check out the utterly amazing sequel, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, directed by the great Yoshiaki Kawajiri. While I enjoy this film for how cheesy it is, I also enjoy it for how genuinely superb it is.