Tag Archives: Vampire

197. VAMPYR (1932)

Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey; Castle of Doom (alternate English version)

“I just wanted to make a film different from all other films. I wanted, if you will, to break new ground for the cinema. That is all. And do you think this intention has succeeded? Yes, I have broken new ground.”–Carl Theodore Dreyer on Vampyr

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julian West, Jan Hieronimko, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz

PLOT: Allen Gray, a student of the occult, wanders to the small hamlet of Courtempierre. There, he witnesses ghostly visions and meets an old man who is soon killed by an assassin’s bullet. The man’s sickly daughter lies in bed, her blood drained by a vampire, and Gray takes it upon himself to find the source of the contagion.

Still from Vampyr (1932)
BACKGROUND:

  • The story was inspired by tales from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic short story collection “In a Glass Darkly,” the most important of which is “Carmilla” (a vampire tale with lesbian undertones).
  • Vampyr was produced in three versions: one with the cast speaking English, one in French, and one in German. Complete prints of the English and French versions no longer exist, although parts were used in restoring the German version. Some say the English version was never completed. Filming the same script in multiple languages was a trend at the time—see also the Spanish-language version of Dracula—although this practice was soon abandoned as too costly.
  • Star “Julian West” is actually Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who funded the production in exchange for the leading role. Gunzburg used a pseudonym to avoid the embarrassment that would result from having an actor in his Russian expatriate noble family.
  • Vampyr was shot through a layer of gauze positioned in front of the camera to create the soft, dreamlike visuals.
  • The film was booed at its premiere in Berlin, and in Vienna crowds rioted, demanding their money back. Vampyr lost money and at the time was seen as an embarrassment in its distinguished director’s career, although now it is regarded with near universal acclaim.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The translucent astral body of our protagonist, peering down at his doppelganger as it lies in a coffin.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nearly irrational, mood-based horror gem with imagery that verges on the surreal, Vampyr is a grim and restless death parable made in the brief age when the melodramatic structures of silent films were slowly being fleshed out with the new colors and textures afforded by sound. This experiment in terror by a master filmmaker, made in a unique period that cannot be recreated, is an artifact of its time that paradoxically seems all the more universal because of the age-bound specificity of its style.


Clip from Vampyr (1932)

COMMENTS: “It was an eerie moonlit night. Lights and shadows, Continue reading 197. VAMPYR (1932)

BEAUTIFUL FILMS: WERNER HERZOG’S NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979)

‘s Nosferatu (1922) rightly ranks on nearly every historian’s list of the greatest films to emerge from the silent era (as does his Sunrise). Murnau’s concept of the vampire manages to embrace its absurdities and simultaneously repel us. Probably as much “Varney The Vampire” as Dracula, Murnau’s demonic, Victorian count is more a diseased, toothsome, carnivorous rat than a crepuscular Valentino. Murnau, who served as his own cameraman, artistic director, designer, and editor, and did his own lighting, filtered this greatest of all vampire films through his perfectionist sensibilities (only ‘s 1932 Vampyr has a comparable, but contrasting beauty.

Of course, the vampire genre became increasingly ludicrous. Worse, Dracula and his cohorts became dull, repetitive, and insignificant. The Lord of the Undead became so tame that producers tapped Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian-tinged “Carmilla” (repeatedly) in an attempt to reinstate an edge, which suited the 1970s sexual revolution. Despite mixed results, it worked to a degree (We have yet to see buxom lesbo vampires selling breakfast cereal, but give it time).

Just when we thought the masculine bloodsuckers had given up the ghost to their more interesting female counterparts, , of all directors, gave new vitality to a very old story by doing something out of the ordinary with his 1979 homage to Murnau, Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979).

Herzog’s Nosferatu boasts a startling aesthetic with stained hues and bizarre, cool pacing. Petrified interiors strikingly contrast stony exteriors seething with grey life. Cinephiles wax endlessly about Stanley Kubrick’s obsessive use of sterile whites to parallel opaque reds. Herzog utilizes greys, browns, and whites much differently. Lack of color conveys something seething with life, but not life as typically defined. ’s whitened, fleshy count pierces the bluest skies and greenest forests.

One of Herzog’s motives in making the film was a chance for a second collaboration with Kinski (they first teamed up for 1972’s Agguire: The Wrath of God, while Woyzeck immediately followed Nosferatu in the very same year). Due to copyright restraints, Murnau was unable to use the names of Bram Stoker’s cast of characters. Fifty years later, Herzog did not have to contend with the author’s estate, and although he utilized the familiar names, Herzog took liberties with the story.

Still from Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)Kinski’s is a surprisingly sympathetic performance that still manages to convey grotesque mania. Kinski’s Dracula is as inimitable as Max Schreck’s in the 1922 original. Although both actors took the count-as-a-rodent approach, Kinski’s arouses a pronounced degree of empathy. Playing opposite Kinski’s bleached bat is the gossamer  as Lucy. Mina is jettisoned completely. Apparently, Herzog felt Lucy was a more compelling character (Sadie Frost, as a concupiscent Lucy, validated that point in Coppola’s 1992 Dracula, wholly dismissing ’s waxen Mina). Adjani is in every way Kinski’s equal. You can’t take your eyes off of this enlivened, spectral figure. Unlike Murnau’s Greta Schroder, Adjani is no dormant sacrificial lamb. It is she, not Harker (Bruno Ganz) or Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), who is the film’s protagonist.

Herzog reinstates the novel’s contrast of the sacramental with the Satanic (Schreck’s count is an anti-Semitic caricature preying on Schroder’s German virgin). Lucy actively tracks down Dracula’s heterodox sanctuary, eradicating it with the Eucharist. 

Paradoxes abound: White rats (thousands, millions of them) gift the vivacious breath of disease. The Transylvanian aboriginals (echoing the populace of Aguirre) contrast with urbane Londoners. Humor pierces a milieu of soulful solemnity when Dracula, in chalky voice, says: “I thought he’d never leave,” after his sole encounter with the raving Renfield (). The redemptive goal is offset, in the film’s climax, with cynicism.

As expected, Herzog is too authentic an artist to produce a mere fan film. Nosferatu The Vamypre is stamped with the artist’s personal aesthetics, giving at least some credence to the occasional claim that this homage actually surpasses Murnau’s original.

CAPSULE: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ana Lily Amirpour

FEATURING: Arash Marandi, Sheila Vand, Marshall Manesh

PLOT: A young man romances a mysterious woman in the sparsely-inhabited town known as “Bad City.”

Still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With no real plot to speak of, Girl is a bit of a tease, although the film’s exotic originality is seductive.

COMMENTS: The town of “Bad City” is so sparsely inhabited it only has one little boy, one junkie, one prostitute, one sexy socialite, one vice lord… and one vampire. The setting is the story in this plot-thin exercise, and it’s to Girl‘s credit that its atmosphere intoxicates even though the film does not have much to say. Leaning against a fence smoking, looking like a Persian James Dean in his shades and wife beater, protagonist Arash (Arash Marandi) begins the movie by rescuing a cat, then walking past a hooker in a headscarf and what looks to be a gully full of corpses. Arash’s dad, we soon learn, single-handedly keeps the local skag dealer in business. At night, the nearly deserted town is haunted by a silent female vampire in a striped shirt and a hijab who rides a skateboard (!) One night, dressed as Dracula and lost in a post-costume party stupor, Arash not only encounters the mysterious woman, but survives; not only survives, but is enthralled by her. The vampiress, who radiates loneliness and may be growing tired of her self-appointed role as Bad City’s judge and executioner, may be tempted by Arash as well.

There are some victims along the way, but that is pretty much the plot. What is fascinating about the movie is its evocation of a nowheresville hellscape: the nearly deserted suburban streets lensed in stark black and white, the long silences broken by ethereal music (everything from faux-Morricone to 80s angst-pop). The fact that the actors speak Persian and the women cover their hair implies that Bad City is located in Iran, but the movie was actually shot in and around Bakersfield, California, and the film’s sensibility is an odd mix of east and west, austerity and decadence. It’s like a second-generation Iranian-American distorted dream of a homeland never seen. The movie’s capacity to blend the bleak and the sensual sets it apart from run of the mill arthouse indies.

Writer/director Amirpour professes admiration for and Sergio Leone, but seems like the heaviest influence here, and not just because Girl would make a perfect languid-fang double feature with Only Lovers Left Alive.  The minimalism (there are some very drawn out sequences in Girl), gift for framing urban decay, and eclectic use of pop music all suggest early Jarmusch. I would usually use “style-over-substance” as a compliment rather than an insult, but in this case I do believe that Girl would benefit from a little more meat on its aesthetic bones, a little more blood in its beautiful veins. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is an exciting movie, one that suggests that its director might have a masterpiece in her somewhere down the line.

The film might not have ever been made without the support of , who signed on as a producer after falling in love with the script.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Just when you think you’ve seen it all… along comes something completely new, or at least something so intriguingly bizarre as to seem completely new.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: George Clooney,  , , , Ernest Liu, Fred Williamson, , , ,

PLOT: Two vicious criminals take a preacher’s family hostage and head for a rendezvous at a biker bar in Mexico, but it turns out that the establishment is run by the undead.

Still from From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: From Dusk Till Dawn is really two different movies: it starts out as a gritty killers-on-the-lam flick, then turns into a campy horror film once dusk falls. Unfortunately, the first movie really sucks, and the second one has some great set pieces, but is spotty. And, although the collision of these two sensibilities is somewhat weird (though perhaps a better word is “jarring”), neither movie standing alone is bizarre enough for our tastes.

COMMENTS: As the first serious collaboration between two exploitation enfants terribles Robert Rodriguez (who directs here) and Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay and acts), From Dusk Till Dawn was a hugely anticipated project. You can tell by the lineup of talent eager to work with the duo: big-time star Harvey Keitel was joined by up-and-comers George Clooney, Juliette Lewis and Salma Hayek, with a cool comeback appearance by Fred Williamson and an exotic presence in the person of Cheech Marin (who plays three roles, for no particular reason). The triumph of Pulp Fiction was fresh in everyone’s mind, while Rodriguez was still considered of an indie legend for making El Mariachi for $7,000. The thought of these two collaborating on a vampire movie made hip 1990s cineastes salivate.

I have to say that at the time I was disappointed at the results, however, and in the two decades since my opinion of the film has only softened a little bit. It seems that Tarantino, unquestionably a genius director, envisioned Dusk as his big acting break. Casting himself as a sadistic nerd (so he wouldn’t have to stretch—zing!), QT wrote himself a role that dominates the early half of the film. He plays the live-wire with the itchy trigger finger who complcates the plot by killing everyone in sight, much to the exasperation of cooler-headed Clooney. The problem is, Tarantino is whiny-sounding and even whiny-looking, and rather than fearing him as a dangerously unhinged psychopath, you just want to slap him with the back of your hand (perhaps realizing this would be audience’s natural reaction, Tarantino scripted a scene where Clooney knocks him out with one swift backhand to his impossible-to-miss forehead).

Tarantino does do a good job of making you despise his character, but the problem with the film’s (completely unnecessary) first ten minutes is that it sets you up to despise everyone: Tarantino, Clooney, and most of their victims, including a ranger who goes on a rant about “Mongoloids” in the food service industry. The movie gets better when Harvey Keitel enters, and even better when Tarantino leaves. As a preacher of lapsed faith, Keitel is the first decent person to appear in Dusk—why wait until almost 20 minutes have passed to introduce the first likable character? Although almost half the movie is over at this point, things improve greatly once the killers and their hostages reach the”Titty Twister,” a South-of-the-Border den with enough sin stored up behind its Hellfire-spouting portals to put the entire city of Tijuana out of business. Inside, “Santanico Pandemonium” (how much better of a stripper name is that than “Kandy” or “Neveah”?) puts on a dance that’s so hot, she doesn’t even have to take her bikini off to make Tarantino’s eyes glaze over, and soon sexual tension leads to hot vampire action as a brood of bloodsuckers descend to feed on the assembled truckers and bikers. Unfortunately for the vampires, they decided to locate their lair in a bar with wooden chairs whose breakaway legs make for hundreds of perfect stakes, leading to vampire genocide on a massive scale. I would have gone with Naugahyde booths, but then vampires never ask me for decorating tips.

Williamson and Savini are a treat as a pair of badasses and natural vampire killers. Savini has a crotch gun and kickboxing moves, Williamson has a cigar and the fact that he’s freakin’ Fred Williamson. Unlike Tarantino’s pedophile rapist, they are both exactly the type of characters that a fun B-movie romp needs. It’s great to see the undead meet their doom at the hands of stereotypical macho men—much more fun than it was too see innocent people tormented by a believable sex pervert in the movie’s opening reels. If From Dusk Till Dawn had started soon after Keitel made the scene and progressed more quickly to the Titty Twister, the movie could have earned a recommendation.  As it is, it’s a curious failure that has been surprisingly overrated by people who remember the vampire-stabbing fun of the pre-dawn finale, but forget the  incongruous and unpleasant pre-dusk sequences.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A deliriously trashy, exuberantly vulgar, lavishly appointed exploitation picture, this weird combo of roadkill movie and martial-arts vampire gorefest is made to order for the stimulation of teenage boys.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Anton Yelchin

PLOT: A reclusive composer living in a cluttered house in a decaying neighborhood of Detroit is actually a vampire suffering from severe ennui; he reunites with his undead wife, who flies in from Morocco, and is visited by her troublemaking younger sister.

Still from Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: No Jim Jarmusch movie is ordinary or normal, but this languid vampire romance/drama, while intoxicating, doesn’t quite make it all the way to “weird.”

COMMENTS: I’ve always wondered how vampires keep from getting bored with eternal undeath. I occasionally find it hard to find something to do to fill up a few hours on a rare free Saturday afternoon; how in the world would I pass the endless nights of dozens of strung-out lifetimes?

Only Lovers Left Alive starts from that very premise, with vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a centuries-old composer who now collects vintage guitars and composes feedback-laced funeral dirges, bored and contemplating offing himself with a new twist on the old stake-in-the-heart methodology. The only thing that keeps him from retiring to the coffin for good is his love for fellow walking corpse Eve (Tilda Swinton, who in an albino wig looks oh-positively undead, as well as slightly resembling a transgendered Jim Jarmusch). The mood of luxurious, decadent idleness is a fit with Jarmusch’s patient style of filmmaking. The vampires here are wan intellectuals, disaffected Romantics, above the common run of the living (whom they refer to as “zombies”). There is a reference to some recent corruption of the human world, in the idea that human blood is now largely contaminated, and it’s hard for the vampires to find “the good stuff” without a connection at the blood bank (the only truly funny moment in the movie comes when a bloodsucker feels sick after sipping at the veins of a poorly-chosen victim). The script is peppered with English-lit jokes (one of the vampires is a famous Elizabethan writer), and the soundtrack is largely dark psychedelia that give off a decadent, hashish-y vibe. The commonplace hemoglobin-as-a-dug motif further reinforces the film’s Bohemian aura. Some of the best moments are the blood on the teeth montages, when the undead each down a cup of red stuff and throw back their heads in ecstasy, looking for all the world like hopheads getting a fix. Later, disheveled, wearing sunglasses at night as they wander the streets of Tangiers looking for a score, Swinton and Hiddleston might as well be staggering in the footsteps of .

Even though a couple of characters die, it seems that not much actually happens over the course of two hours, or that there is much new that can happen to these jaded walking corpses. Though not as abstract and punishing as his previous experiment in stripped-down spy fiction, 2009’s The Limits of Control, Jarmusch’s latest is bound to alienate many viewers with its lack of action and highbrow references that sometimes seem self-congratulatory. Still, if you get on its arty wavelength, you’ll find euphoric moments that hit you like a rush of fresh blood to the cerebral cortex. Colorful, arabesque, and throbbing with a melancholy drone, the purpose of the movie is not to tell a story so much as to enfold us inside of these vampires’ immortal languor. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film to soak in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

‘…part spot-on Detroit travelogue, part pop culture satire and part fish eternally out-of-water anxiety exercise. Somehow it’s all very entertaining and weird and fitting, with Detroit looking like a place any vampire would be happy to be.”–Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)

CARL THEODOR DREYER’S VAMPYR (1932)

Most agree that ‘s Nosferatu (1922) is the greatest and most unique screen incarnation of Bram Stoker’s iconic character (although, as blasphemous as it sounds, I would place ‘s 1979 remake on an equal plane. Yes, I said that, but that is a subject for another week). However, the greatest cinematic treatment of  vampire folklore is a world removed from the titular Transylvanian count: ‘s Vampyr (1932). But it is not for attention span-challenged vampire fans.

Vampyr is a film of relentless, static beauty, almost demanding chimerical concentration and phantasmagorical imagination of the viewer. After the predictable box office failure of the greatest film ever made—Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—the director deluded himself into thinking he could produce something commercial. He had what seemed to be the right source of inspiration (slight as it is): Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 pulp hit “Carmilla,” taken from the collection “In a Glass Darkly.” “Carmilla,” with its theme of a lesbian vampire would, of course, be enticing fodder for the dull masses. But it turned out Dreyer was too original and too much in possession of an authentic, artistic spiritual substance for titillation. Fortunately, Dreyer, who wrote the screenplay, jettisoned the lesbianism and, with it, any anticipation of appeasing puerile genre fans. Vampyr was a financial flop, resulting in Dreyer’s nervous breakdown and the dissolution of his production company. He would  not make another film until Day of Wrath (1943). If period aficionados found Vampyr‘s deliberate pacing and intense, ethereal milieu too challenging, then many contemporary viewers, saddled with grand guignol expectations, often find the film provocative. Despite this, Vampyr proved to be a profound influence on both the German Expressionists and the Surrealists.

Although Vampyr was Dreyer’s first sound film, he was uncomfortable with the medium, and the movie is imbued with pronounced silent film aesthetics. The great Rudolph Mate served as director of photography, interpreting Dreyer’s crepuscular world through incandescent, gossamer grays, giving the film an enchanted but foreboding sheen. Dreyer likened the experience of watching the film to a person standing in a room, then being told that another has just died in an adjacent room. The perception of the room you are in suddenly alters, even though the room itself remains the same.

Still from Vampyr (1922)As in a dream, the imagery is often disjointed, but deeply ingrained: a ferryman with scythe, a shrouded river, a shadow departing its one-legged owner,  the antagonist dispatched by suffocating from falling white flour in a dilapidated windmill, and the film’s nexus, the disquieting vignette in which the protagonist, Allan Grey (Julian West, who financed the film) lies, trapped, in a sealed coffin, perforated with a glass window. We take on the role of voyeur to Grey’s nightmare, his helpless, vacant stare masking his terror. His eyes take in the landscape as he is carried away to burial.

The cast is primarily made up of non-professionals (with the notable exception of Sybille Schmitz as the dying sister, Leon). Chief among the amateurs is Henriette Gerard as Marguerite Chopin, the old woman whose spectral presence is matched by her ominous Doctor (Jan Hieronimko). Together, the two weave a spell over the film, as does Dreyer, who imbues Vampyr with a resplendent sense of hermetic purpose permeating its sickly skin. As with all of Dreyer’s work, Vampyr is replete with spiritual preoccupations and fears.

Vampyr may be one of the films most benefited by the Criterion Collection treatment. For years, it was only available in washed out transfers. Even the Image Entertainment release was disappointing. Criterion has done a remarkable restoration, using both French and German versions. Jorgen Ross’ documentary of Dreyer, Casper Tyberjerg’s essay, commentaries, a 1958 Dreyer radio broadcast, and the original script are part of an extensive package of goodies.

157. NOSFERATU (1922)

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens; Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror

“It is commonplace to say that silent films are more ‘dreamlike,’ but what does that mean? In ‘Nosferatu,’ it means that the characters are confronted with alarming images and denied the freedom to talk them away.”–Roger Ebert

Must See

DIRECTED BY: F.W. Murnau

FEATURING: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach

PLOT: A young clerk named Hutter leaves his wife Ellen to travel to Transylvania with a deed for one Count Orlock to sign so he can purchase a house in Viborg. Orlock, however, is nosferatu, a vampire, and Hutter find himself a prisoner in the Count’s castle as Orlock ships himself to the German port in a coffin. When Orlock arrives the town is shut down for fear of plague, and the vampire takes an interest in Ellen…

Still from Nosferatu (1922)

BACKGROUND:

  • F.W. Murnau’s first seven films, made between 1919 and 1921, are all considered lost. Among them was an adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Nosferatu was his tenth movie.
  • Albin Grau, Nosferatu‘s co-producer, financier and production designer, was an occultist and a German rival of . His production company Prana intended to produce films promoting occultist beliefs, but the company went bankrupt after Nosferatu.
  • Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” barely disguised by changing the names and moving the action from London to Germany. The Stoker estate successfully sued the filmmakers for copyright infringement after release, and the film was ordered to be destroyed (fortunately, many prints survived).
  • Ranked #21 on Empire Magazine’s List of Best Films of World Cinema.
  • ‘s 2000 film Shadow of a Vampire is about the making of Nosferatu, and plays on the notion that the actor Max Schreck might really have been a vampire (an idea fleshed out from a tongue-in-cheek suggestion made by the writer Ado Kyrou in his book “Surrealism in Cinema”).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: What else could it be but Max Schreck, the rat-faced herald of plague and pestilence and the screen’s most bestial bloodsucker? The scene where he rises unnaturally, stiff as a plank, from his coffin in the ship’s hold still presses the primal panic button.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The experimental use of negative images, sped up film stock, primitive stop motion photography, and the play of shadows to suggest a diabolical world coexisting with our mundane sunlit world creates an uncanny, nightmarish universe. The once new and startling techniques Murnau employs quickly became commonplace, but after nearly a century of disuse they have again become novel through their very archaism.


Trailer for a 2013 re-release of Nosferatu

COMMENTS: At the dawn of cinema, horror movies weren’t diversions meant to give teenage boys an excuse to put a comforting arm around their Continue reading 157. NOSFERATU (1922)