Monday, September 1, 2008

The Vampire Tapestry

Criterion, Eureka! and Masters Of Cinema are all fighting for the same business, I guess. It's not so much among the three, but more between the American Criterion and the British labels. And when they grapple with each other to get the same customers, boy do we get some really magnificent releases.

Case in point, Carl Dryer's Vampyr. I bought the Criterion two-disc edition before realising Eureka! had an almost similar release. Some extras that are on the Criterion disc are in the Eureka! book that comes with the set, and vice-versa. There's a comparison somewhere online between the two transfers and they're not that much different as well. (During the Amazon UK summer sale, I toyed with the idea of getting the Eureka! set, but thankfully rationale prevailed.)

Dryer's Vampyr is a film that I'd read about even when I was a mere schoolboy. And what I'd read intrigued me so much, it had been almost a crusade ever since, to seek out the film. I remember seeing a badly faded still of the famous Grim Reaper image of the man at the jetty, in a book about horror films (which I'd found and read at the state library only because it had nudie pics from various horror films that "intrigued" me as an adolescent!). In it is described many strange and inexplicable instances, like a man's shadow that gets up and moves away from him.

Indeed, finally sitting down and seeing it for the first time, the film is confoundingly impressionistic, in a good way. Dryer's motive is obvious. This is a film designed to unsettle its audience. Many strange sequences remain unexplained - the shadow with a life of its own, the main character's soul leaving his body, a ghostly ballroom of shadows, a ghost appearing even before the person has died - and the film buckles its own continuity. The axis is crossed many times, and the positions of the characters in a scene are often confusing. But one of the most disturbing moments of the film is where the main character gets encased in a coffin and buried alive.

Having also received Universal's 75th anniversary two-disc edition of Tod Browning's original 1931 Dracula, and having been the proud owner of a copy of Murnau's Nosferatu for a while now, I could finally compare these early vampire films with each other.

My favourite remains Murnau's, because it's a technically marvellous film. The gorgeous use of shadows, and in one unsettling scene, the use of negatives, and Max Schreck's frightening make-up, are all beautiful in a hideous way. Strangely enough, among the three, only Nosferatu shows any fangs. For all Bela Lugosi's fine theatrics (and he's exceptionally good at them, with a very solid screen presence), he doesn't actually sport any fangs. Nor does the old vampire in Dryer's film.

Browning's Dracula is simply the birth of Hollywood horror, establishing the straightforward, clear-cut narrative that builds from conventional suspense and which goes straight for the jugular. It is not interested in horror at a subconscious level, as is the case with most Hollywood horror movies. It's more visceral in its approach, while Nosferatu and Vampyr build on atmosphere and mood, and are much more haunting and memorable, even today. Besides, Nosferatu has one unforgettable scene that's hard to top - of Count Orlock carrying his coffin across town.

What Dracula has, that the other two do not appear to be concerned with, is the sexuality and the sensual nature of the vampire. As one interviewee in the extras on the DVD described, Lugosi's count is Valentino as a vampire - seductive yet dangerous. Ironically, Vampyr is partly adapted from J. Sheridan Le Fanu's short story, Carmilla, which is one of the earliest psychosexual lesbian vampire stories. But the erotic undercurrents of the story is sadly missing from the film.

Over the years I had been collecting vampire films, on both laserdisc and DVD. They include John Landis's little-discussed Innocent Blood, which is a rather enjoyable horror comedy, and George Romero's Martin, a very disturbing psychological study of blood obsession and a metaphorical tale about the death of imagination. Of course, there's also Coppola's excellent, red-drenched take on Dracula, with Gary Oldman as an even more seductive but disgusting vampire count. Neil Jordan's somewhat wispy adaptation of Ann Rice's Interview With The Vampire is mysteriously endearing, with a very disquieting turn by Kirsten Dunst as a child vampire. Then there's Tobe Hooper's genuinely frightening TV series of Stephen King's Salem's Lot.

There are, of course, many other vampire films - From Dusk Till Dawn, Fright Night, Blade - but the ones that remain an interest to me are Kathryn Bigelow's cowboy vampire tale, Near Dark, and one of Viggo Mortensen's early films, The Reflecting Skin. The latter is available only on a very expensive remastered Japanese DVD.

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