Higanjima: Escape from Vampire Island (2009) Movie Review

A frenetic slice of vampire action arrives from the East in the form of “Higanjima – Escape from Vampire Island”, from Korean director Kim Tae Gyun (“Volcano High”), marking his Japanese language debut. Based upon a popular manga by Koji Matsumoto, the film was scripted by Oishi Tetsuya, who previously enjoyed success by adapting the cult “Death Note” series for the silver screen. With a hip young cast that includes Ishikuro Hideo (“Gokusen”), Watanabe Dai (“Crows Zero”), and Mizukawa Asami (“Nodame Cantabile”), the film is a wild horror thriller that keeps the body count rising in fine and inventive fashion. Having recently screened at Frightfest in London 2010, the film now arrives on region 2 DVD and Blu Ray via Manga Entertainment.

The film begins with typical high school student Akira (Ishikuro Hideo) being chased for no good reason by a gang of bullies, only to be saved by a gorgeous and mysterious young woman called Rei (Mizukawa Asami). Taking him to a love hotel (naturally), she informs him that his missing older brother Atsushi (Watanabe Dai) is in fact still alive and hiding out on the remote island of Higanjima, which just happens to be infested with vampires. Although Akira and his friends initially find this somewhat hard to swallow, an attack by a vampire assassin changes their minds, and they agree to accompany Rei back to the island to try and save Atsushi. Unfortunately, they soon discover that they have been lured there for food, and a desperate battle for survival ensues.

“Higanjima – Escape from Vampire Island” certainly offers something a little different to the usual skulking blood suckers, and is decidedly more “Battle Royale” than “Dracula” or even than “From Dusk Till Dawn”. Sadly, these Asian vampires are not of the old school hopping variety, but are still a worthy strain, being pasty, green faced ghouls, who though basically human resemble toothy relatives of the undead from the popular “Onimusha” video games. The film earns extra points not only for its sheer number of faceless sword fodder vampire goons, but also for throwing in a handful of fantastic monsters, including an impressive and excellently pointless giant beast. The film actually has quite a number of neat and inventively wacky touches, with a great gimpy fop count villain, a mad doctor, and plenty of crumbling villages, misty forests and graveyards, all of which go some way to making things morbidly atmospheric in a fun, near camp sort of way.

It certainly helps that the budget was obviously quite high, and the film has great production values and above average special effects, with some good use of CGI. Rewardingly, the computer work is largely absent from the fight and gore scenes, and the film is free from obviously artificial looking digital blood. This is no small benefit, as the film really does paint the screen red, with countless scenes of vampires being sliced, diced and pulverised. The dispatch method of choice on show is not a stake to the heart, but the complete destruction of the head, resulting in many scenes of skull crushing and decapitation, which makes for a lot of impressive gruesome money shots. Though never particularly nasty, the film packs a winning splattery punch, with some very creative scenes and a determinedly ghoulish edge that should endear it to fang fans fed up with some of the more anaemic and po-faced genre outings of late from Hollywood.

Director Kim does a great job of giving the film the energetic and unrestrained feel of a manga without ever being too cartoonish, and it plays out like an over the top survival horror adventure, as the youngsters bounce around, trying to escape and rescue each other as they repeatedly fall into the clutches of the largely incompetent vampires. The action comes thick and fast, and the emphasis is firmly on thrills rather than frights, with nothing ever being taken too seriously. This approach works well, and though there thankfully isn’t too much in the way of needless comic relief, the film is pretty funny when it needs to be. Whilst predictable, it’s well paced, and though the plot and characters aren’t anything out of the ordinary the film is both exciting and engaging, and even at two hours, usually a stretch for genre productions, it doesn’t feel too long

“Higanjima – Escape from Vampire Island” really does make for a great deal of full blooded fun, and stands not only as a superior vampire film, but as one of the better manga adaptations of recent years. Offering an exciting and gory variation on the usual themes, it will hopefully find its niche on DVD, and is certainly well deserving of cult fandom.

Tae-gyun Kim (director) / Kôji Matsumoto (manga), Tetsuya Ôishi (screenplay)
CAST: Dai Watanabe … Atsushi
Asami Mizukawa … Rei
Hideo Ishiguro … Akira
Kôji Yamamoto … Miyabi
Miori Takimoto … Yuki
Tomohisa Yuge … Ken-chan

Buy Higanjima: Escape from Vampire Island on DVD