Despite its significant flaws, there’s plenty to appreciate in “Vampire Hunter D” if you come to it with the right attitude. Ashida and his crew make good use of a stark color palette to heighten the drama, resulting in memorable images. Its best scenes, like in the opening where Doris has her first run-in with a vampire, effectively use limited animation to produce a truly eerie atmosphere. The creature design is also consistently entertaining from beginning to end, featuring the classic horror monsters you’d expect as well as some uniquely gross terrors. Not to mention the tips of the hat to horror classics, like the villainous vampire sharing a last name with legendary actor Christopher Lee.
For me, the world of “Vampire Hunter D” remains its strongest trait. The film is packed with cool environments, rendered skillfully by the background artists. A wasteland of crumbling cities stalked by lizards. Doris’s farm, riddled with tech and surrounded by crosses to ward off evil. The vampire castle, whose collapse purges the sky of storm clouds. Successive anime would borrow, directly or indirectly, from D’s “anything goes” school of world-building. But while I would put many of those works ahead of 1985’s “Vampire Hunter D,” there’s something to be said for the scrappy confidence of the 1985 original.
Put aside the threadbare animation and story of the first “Vampire Hunter D” film, and the hero remains. A tall man with long hair, a hat and a cloak, and a weird little parasite living in his hand. Kikuchi understood that any kind of pulp contrivance was acceptable with a strong enough character leading the way. “Vampire Hunter D” may be an indulgent relic of the old world. But the character survives in the cultural memory, casting a long shadow from beyond the grave.