Dave's Movie Hall of Fame: May '18

Shadow of the Vampire

Nosferatu (1922)

One great aspect of being a fan, of almost any media, is the history it exposes you to. In my ardent pursuit of all things Ooky and Spooky I had the novelty of introducing myself at an early age to silent cinema. I had read of these earliest representations of monsters on the screen and was dismayed to find them absent from the shelves of tapes at my local video stores, but the boom of cheap DVD Box Sets made accessible what once was legend, and I soon immersed myself in the strange, archaic arts. The Cabinet was opened, The Phantom revealed, The Hunchback unchained, and the rat infested coffin of Count Orlok unearthed. Made by auteur filmmaker F.W. Murnau, famously without the permission of Bram Stoker’s estate, the blatant copyright infringement lead to a campaign to have the film destroyed, though by then enough copies were already in distribution globally to make such a task impossible. If the appropriation can be forgiven it’s a remarkably artistic adaptation. Murau draws a great deal of dramatic expression from shadow play and the inhumanly malignant presence of Max Schreck is so strikingly different from the traditional romantic figure of Dracula that it later spawned its own breed of vampire. In its most complete version (there are a few) it pulls into focus the vampire as a physical manifestation of the plague and parallels that with a grieving widow descending into madness, ending when the two forces fatally meet. Its haunting vision stands to this day as a masterpiece of cinema and the epitome of eeriness.

 

Vampyr (1932)

While not a direct adaptation of Dracula this near silent German film is yet unmistakably built on the bones of Stoker’s novel. Not to say it’s unoriginal, in fact you would be hard pressed to find another film quite like it, because unlike Murnau’s Nosferatu, which literally interpreted the bulk of the novel, director Carl Theodor Dreyer dresses those same bones in layers impressionistic, dream-like sequences. A graduate of post WWI German Expressionism there’s heavy use of shadow, including whole scenes which are pure shadowplay. The innovative camerawork emphasises subjectivity, even using abstract POV shots in the case of the films most remarkable sequence in which the protagonist dreams he is paralyzed in a coffin looking out a small viewing window as characters peer in at him before he’s carried off to his grave, the camera pointed at the sky and carried along in his place. Analogs do exist for characters and events from Dracula, but recast and restructured until only the vaguest resemblance can be discerned from a knowledgeable viewer. Truthfully, the story here is all but incomprehensible, involving a doctor poisoning patients for some monetary gain while using the spectral activities of a vampire to cover his tracks. I can only imagine that if this premise were made (or remade) as a Universal Horror picture of the 1940s it would’ve been given some schlock title like “Dracula’s Ghost*”. In that case the narratives dream logic would’ve been supplanted by the kind of gimmicky scenes the term is most often applied to, whereas here it’s a genuine gothic nightmare with a structure that could be taken as an ancestor to David Lynch films. Rarely does a genre film traverse this deeply into high concept art and poetry, to which I contend makes this to gothic horror what Kubrick’s 2001 is to science fiction. Vampyr is a film to be experienced, not solely, or even primarily, for entertainment. It’s for the curious and patient who wish to seek it out and experience its transcendent artistry.

 

*I originally wrote “The Vampire’s Ghost”, but turns out that actually was the title to a 1945 B Horror movie. It sadly bares no resemblance to this picture.

 

Horror of Dracula (1958)

If any actor legitimately gave Bela Lugosi a run for his money in the role of Dracula it was Christopher Lee at Hammer Films. Here, in his first turn as the character he would play 8 more times by 1974, he has all of about 7 minutes of screen time and barely any dialog, yet he makes every second as The Count count! (I couldn’t resist) As far as I’m concerned he’s the only actor to play the part who did something significantly different than what came before, and without imitating Bela’s accent which most actors can’t seem to disabuse themselves of. He’s a no-nonsense menace of animalistic nature who’s prone to sudden bursts of violence as opposed to slow, creeping terror, which must have shocked audiences at the time. It’s been said the contribution Hammer made to horror is they added color, blood, and sex, which is more or less true in terms of the marketing and commercial success of these films, but it belittles the greater value these films had to offer. The charisma of the actors in morally dynamic, character driven stories set against an artfully crafted atmosphere was a real breath of fresh air to gerne filmmaking after what was at that point 7 years of bland protagonists righteously combating space men and radioactive mutants in a flat, documentary style. And the deadly, loose robed vampiresses were far more appealing than the rocketship brassiered girl-next-door types who were habitually missing in action. I can’t exactly quantify the artist merits of their exploitative elements, but as a young man they were a thrilling discovery. In retrospect they remain a compelling bridge between the classics of yesteryear and our modern, cynical age. Their teeth were sharper, but they still had style.

 

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

The first ever sequel in a Dracula series came 5 years after the original, but picks up right where they left off. Dracula’s dead and his daughter shows up to collect the body, no seriously! Van Helsing, reprised by actor Edward Van Sloan, is being held on suspicion of murder, and while you might think this lady vamp would be out for revenge she’s more concerned with freeing herself from her lesbian - I mean bloodsucking! - appetites. Did I say lesbian? Well, the blatant subtext is hard to miss. It was no ignorant mistake either, they even meant it to be a stronger element of the plot before the censors made them take it out. The visually striking Gloria Holden is absolutely hypnotic as the Countess who struggles in the pains of her secret life, tragically hoping against hope that a young handsome doctor might “cure” her to be able to walk freely in society again. Not only is this a fascinating social document of its time, it’s also a solidly entertaining film, faster paced and more conventionally dynamic than its predecessor (no stilted dialog here!) having many fans who say it’s actually the better film. Sadly, this didn’t translate into box office success and the film marks the end of the 1st wave of Universal monster movies before strict production codes were imposed, leading to a slate of cleaner, more commercial minded monster features that dominated and eventually killed the gerne in the 1940s. Lugosi was originally planned to return in a flashback to the origin of Holden’s character, but as this involved a medieval satanic orgy those hypersensitive censors promptly omitted the scene before it could even be shot. Fortunately for Bela his contract stipulated he still get paid for the days work.

 

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Produced by Nicholas Cage, it’s not surprising that this is one unusual beast. A fictionalized account of F.W. Murnau’s making of 1922’s Nosferatu with the premise that the film was made using, get this, a real vampire! Highly entertaining, even funny, for such a niche interest artistic endeavour, it manages to play like a contemporary misfit adventure typical of its era while at the same time diving deep into cinematic nerdom. There’s really nothing else quite like it, though Tim Burton’s Ed Wood would be the closest. John Malkovich does a manic turn as the auteur director willing to go to any lengths to make his film perfect, and Willem Dafoe, not in his first or last vampy role but definitely his best, makes the most out of being an onset menace both as an egocentric star and an inhuman monster. Dafoe is so perfect in his part that when they cut in footage of Max Schreck from the original movie it’s completely seamless, not to mention the delightful opportunity the metanarrative gives him to indulge his trademark quirkiness to its maximum level. Increasing it’s cult status are cast members like Udo Kier, a prior Dracula actor himself, and English comedian Eddie Izzard. Somehow the whole affair comes together feeling like the long overdue Sunset Blvd of gothic horror.

 

 

*Bonus Short: Shadow of the Bat! - Batman: Brave and the Bold (2011)

What on the surface appears to be a lighter take on the Dark Knight aimed at a younger audience turns out to be an adventure filled romp through the depths of DC comics continuity. The sheer number of deep cut comic book references this show packs into each episode will leave veteran comic-fans in awe, at the same time maintaining accessibility with laugh-out-loud humor that pays homage to the great Adam West without ever treating the Caped Crusader like a joke. From one obscure corner of the DC multiverse they draw upon a story in which Batman gets vamped, becoming an unstoppable force terror that preys on other superheroes. As Batman and Vampires are molded from the same gothic clay they blend together as seamlessly as chocolate and more chocolate. What impresses me the most is how the show’s deeply referential approach to comics is here applied to the rich history of vampire lore. In roughly 15 minutes they display a wider scope of vampy knowledge than an entire season of Buffy, pulling pages right out of Stoker’s novel with Bats essentially turning Justice League headquarters into Dracula’s castle. Sure, it’s all a bad bat-dream in the end, but of any Saturday morning cartoon representation of vampires, even Bugs Bunny’s encounter with Count Bloodcount, this, to me, stands out by far as the most satisfying.