"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Bela Lugosi's Dead

So, it’s another Hallowe’en; the one night in the year when the shackles can be shaken off and children can use threats of violence to get free stuff and adults can use somewhat ‘unusual’ ingredients in confectionary. In honour of this auspicious date I thought I’d share, and praise, some of my favourite vampire films. Some lauded, some derided; some good, some… not so good.

Nosferatu (1922, F.W. Murnau)
The father of a race of monsters, to purloin a phrase. Although there are references to a Roumanian film named Drakula from a year earlier this ‘lost’ film is apparently a biopic of the original Vlad. So Nosferatu is arguably the first vampire film. Illegally produced, we’re lucky to have this expressionist masterpiece. Refulgent with evil, disease and decay, 85 years old and still magisterially above all that came after. One tomb rose larger and more lordly than the rest and on it but one word, Nosferatu.

Vampyr (1931, Carl T. Dreyer)
Dreyer is now mainly praised for his later (and earlier) weightier films and Vampyr would appear to be an oddity in his canon. It is a genuinely odd experience. It’s supposedly a ‘talkie’ but the dialogue is so sparse as to make that a misnomer. I would argue it is the final European Expressionist horror, at the border with the American Universal horrors. It’s almost plotless, dreamy, almost hypnotic. The hero’s waking interment is perhaps the most notable moment. The curious pervasive bleached out effect was caused by the brief and deliberate opening of the film cans to the light after shooting.

Dracula (1931, George Melford)
Forget poor old Bela a while and track down a copy of this. During the silent era films could be exported round the world with only the inter-titles needing to be changed but as sound came the studios were posed a problem of exportability. The answer initially for companies like Universal was to make their films again in Spanish for the South American market. These versions were filmed using the same sets and often the same storyboards but they had one startling difference: they were exempted the strictures of the Hays Code. While Browning’s version is ponderously directed, restrained, rather slow and bound to the stage version and therefore stagy, this Spanish language version has a more spooky atmosphere, better acting, a looser feel (it’s half an hour longer), an eroticism entirely absent from the Lugosi version, heaving bosoms and an expanded climax (Lugosi’s demise is entirely off-screen and denies the audience resolution). The minor flaw is that this Dracula is only marginally better acted than Lugosi’s.

The Isle Of The Dead (1944, Mark Robson)
This is praised here. I suspect this is the best vampire film from the 40’s. By the time Lewton came along Universal were reaching the bottom of the barrel, packaging and repackaging their classic creatures in increasingly desperate ways. This was something else, something different, and it had Karloff.

Dracula (a.k.a. Horror Of Dracula) (1958, Terence Fisher)
One of the big ones and an obvious choice. Never mind that about the only thing it kept from the novel was the title, this is a good film of the old man. It’s well cast, well made, makes good use of this new-fangled colour thing and Christopher Lee surely makes one of the most imposing presences as Dracula. 1966’s Dracula, Prince Of Darkness is maybe, marginally, the better film with it’s widescreen and bolder conception but this has a much better ending… which harks back to the original Nosferatu.

The Hunger (1983, Tony Scott)
Alright, it’s more flash than real substance but is that a major problem? This has several of the same themes as brother Ridley’s contemporaneous Blade Runner: mortality, passage of time and memory, etc. This also seems to prefigure Anne Rice’s Queen Of The Damned. On top of this there’s the luminous Catherine Deneuve and a great piece of Schubert. Recent pictures of Deneuve would seem to indicate that she’s as ageless and timeless as her character here.

Hellraiser (1987, Clive Barker)
Hellraiser? A vampire film? The bad guy’s a dead man revivified with blood who then gains strength through drinking blood from the necks of his victim. This is one of the few modern horrors to actually take itself and the genre seriously: cinematic, intelligent and generally well-acted. The score is a marvellous work in itself. All of this is carried over into the sequel, which has better acting by the presence of Kenneth Cranham. Personally, I think there are unconscious references to Dracula, Prince Of Darkness even though Barker asserts that he doesn’t much care for the Hammer Draculas.

Near Dark (1987, Kathryn Bigelow)
Vampirism brought kicking and screaming into the modern age in a way that Dracula A.D. 1972 could only have dreamed about. This has a genuinely grimy edge of society outcast feel that is impossible when the bloodsucker is in a tuxedo. These are vampires that exude a sense of threat reinforced by the fact that it could be the guy next to you in the bus station.

Nightlife (1989, Daniel Taplitz)
A strange sad comedy-horror. It’s set in Mexico City which lends a new angle to the proceedings. The story is a love triangle: evil vampire and young doctor in love with the same vampiric Maryam d’Abo. Strangely, it’s quite melancholy for an ostensibly light comedy.

Sundown, The Vampire In Retreat (1990, Anthony Hickox)
Vampire comedy with everything thrown into the mix from mad scientists to cowboys. This is great fun. I initially watched this trepidation expecting something stupid but passable… then all of a sudden it’s excellent, smart, scary and funny. And it’s full of people that make you say ‘that’s what’s-his-name… you know…’

Tale Of A Vampire (1992, Shimako Sato)
An unfairly maligned, deeply flawed film. Deeply romantic, deeply melancholy. Virtually a three-hander from Kenneth Cranham, Julian Sands and Suzanna Hamilton. It’s a little slow, a little dreamy and very good-looking. It’s not a perfect film by a long distance but it has a certain something; a spot of imagination that is lacking in many films with many times the budget. And what happened to director? He apparently returned to Japan to continue making films.

Nadja (1994, Michael Almereyda)
A playful yet serious film, seemingly a deliberate return to the atmosphere of Vampyr with a plot liberated from Lambert Hillyer’s 1936 Dracula’s Daughter. This is from the days of American Indie cinema when there was genuine variety. Quirkily cast with memorable turns from Elina Löwensohn in a role she seems to have been destined to play as Dracula’s Daughter and Peter Fonda as a Van Helsing only eclipsed in eccentricity by Hopkins for Coppola. The chiaroscuro photography is radiant with a nifty trick of becoming ‘pixelvision’ for the vampire’s p.o.v. as filmed with a toy camera.

Interview With The Vampire (1994, Neil Jordan)
A fine version of Anne Rice’s only genuinely readable ‘Chronicle’. The tale of a strange and dysfunctional vampire family this film shouldn’t work: while the costumes and design are as sumptuous as would be expected and the direction is great, it does have Tom Cruise, a story told entirely in flashback narrated by a main character who’s clearly still ‘alive’ and a strangely enervated performance from Pitt. Strangely all the script drafts pre-release solely have Jordan’s name as writer by the time the film was released the sole writer was Rice. There seem to be few differences between the early scripts and the film. Quite odd.

Blade (1998, Stephen Norrington)
Portentous and groaning under the weight of it’s own seriousness it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable and very stylish action-horror-thriller. Del Toro’s sequel is interesting; Goyer’s isn’t.

Dracula- Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2003, Guy Maddin)
Dracula the ballet. This is a wonderful dreamlike, mist-enshrouded film. Maddin is clearly indebted to expressionism and the black and white is only broken by the addition of vivid blood red. The music’s Mahler. That should have been enough to get it on the list.

Shadow Of The Vampire (2000, Elias Merhige)
How can you not love a film that has the central conceit that Murnau’s Nosferatu wasn’t fiction? This is more than just an interesting concept: this is a film about film. This is about the artist, about what or who they are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of their vision. Dafoe’s performance as Nosferatu is superb as is the make-up that renders him nigh-on unrecognizable. And that brings us neatly back to where we came in. Aren’t the cycles of life wonderful?

And that’s that. So, have a happy Hallowe’en and, should you observe such things, a contemplative, commemorative and comforting All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. And the sun arose once more, shining its light and life across the land...


Stuart said...

About half way through your list I became dismayed that 'Nadja' had not shown up. But rejoice, for there it is!

But what, sir, do you make of Ferrara's 'The Addiction'?

Tom said...

Can't fault that list much. Nothing I wouldn't have included and can't think of any glaring omissions.

re: Hellraiser score. I take it you've heard the proposed score by Coil that Clive Barker wanted but the studio rejected?

Oli said...

Nadja is a weird, weird film, isn't it?

Jon Peacey said...

Stuart- The Addiction is a film which I find I admire more than I actually like. It's been a long while since I last saw it but from the depths of my memory I recall that I admire the fact that such a film got itself made in the first place because it's a 'difficult' film in the best sense of the term; I like the fact that it concerns itself with very weighty philosophical and religious concerns in a medium that is increasingly retreating from such things; it's a good-looking film and well-acted but I never found it to be a particularly enjoyable film (in comparison to similar thematic works by Bresson or Tarkovsky) which I believe is attributable primarily to the subordination of narrative and character to philosophizing. Oh, and I don't really understand what the ending was trying to say!

Tom- Embarrassingly, I've only heard of the Coil score rather than actually having heard it. This is because it currently seems to work out at more than a pound a minute on a 'certain internet auction site'. Personally, I'm not quite sure whether the Coil style would have added to the film more or less than the extant score. Industrial-style soundtracks work well within the world of Lynch from Eraserhead on and yet I suspect that because these are 'good-looking' films start with this becomes an extension of the overall conception while Hellraiser can, on occasion, look more low budget and domestic and therefore a sumptuous orchestral score raises the ordinary and domestic aspects of the story to an apparently more epic scale. (But that's only my opinion!)

Oli- Weird and wonderful, my friend, weird and wonderful!

Tom said...

The actual soundtrack is v. rare and expensive but all the tracks are included on the Unnatural Selection II compilation as well. They're... interesting. They're a little different to just about any other Coil I've listened to - consderably less industrial for a start; haunting, creepy, unsettling - and I do wonder what sort of difference it would have made.

I wouldn't go so far as to suggest dubious downloads or emailing MP3s but, well, you know...

martin said...

great stuff sir, heard about the Mexican Dracula but never seen it, you are clearly Da Man when it comes to old horrors. Can't think of many other suggestions, but for tacky naked alien vampire fun may I suggest Lifeforce?

Valentine Suicide said...

Nice list! I might have thrown in 'The Fearless Vampire Killers'?.. And although it's not a Vampire Film, that king of Universal spoofs 'Young Frankenstein'

Jon Peacey said...

Thank you kindly Sirs.

Martin- I keep finding that the more I look into these old horror films (or anything really) the more I find there is to track down! Not helped by sporadic releasing. On video, in the UK Universal released 20 of their horrors... in the US it was about 50! I saw Lifeforce an age ago... I'll have to dig out the tape again soon...

Valentine- Young Frankenstein: simply marvellous film, not just my favourite Mel Brooks film but close on my favourite film comedy. They've just re-done it as musical theatre: now that's true horror!!!

The Fearless Vampire Killers nearly made the cut... I was going to mention the close-but-no-cigars in the next post but got side-tracked...

...watch this space...

Tom said...

Lifeforce - worth watching simply for the moment when Jean-Luc Picard turns into the amazingly sexy and extremely naked Mathilda May.