Tuesday, 25 April 2017

200% Cotton.

(Penguin, 1974 / Cover by Paul May / John Claridge)

(Dell, date unknown [presumably 1970] / artwork taken from the movie poster by Robert McGinnis.)

Normally, I’d try to avoid putting two copies of the same book side by side on my shelves, but when I scoped the exquisite American Dell copy of Chester Himes’ ‘Cotton Came To Harlem’ - featuring artwork taken from the superb poster for the 1970 movie, courtesy of Robert McGinnis, as well as a rather nice font - I knew I had to make an exception and stack it up next to my Penguin copy.

I like the Penguin cover too, but the Dell really is a thing of beauty. I only wish my crappy scanner could do justice to the detail of McGinnis's illustration. And no, I’m not sure what “the wild new ‘inside’ movie” is supposed to mean either, but hey – that’s 1970 for you.

If you’re unfamiliar with Himes and his work, I’ll save you most of the hyperbole and simply state that I consider him one of the best American crime writers, period, and that this 1964 belter is a great place to start.

Need more info before committing? I’ll let the back office boys at Penguin and Dell step in to do their damnedest;

The inspiration for this post by the way comes from the fact that I recently got around to watching the aforementioned movie adaptation of ‘Cotton Comes To Harlem’, directed by Ossie Davis. It’s not a bad effort by any means, but whilst it keeps the events and characters of the novel pretty much intact, it falls well wide of the mark when it comes to actually capturing the tone of Himes’ writing.

True, the broadly comic elements and madcap chase antics prioritised by Davis’s film are certainly present in the novel, but the difference is, Himes managed to put them across whilst remaining hard-boiled as fuck, with a burning rage against those who seek to take advantage of the black, urban poor boiling under every page. The movie, essentially, does not.

Significantly downplaying the wanton bloodshed and sweaty, sexualised energy of Himes’ book, as well as the grittier elements of his social realism, the movie plays safe, largely limiting its social criticism to a rather mild lampooning of the contemporary Black Power movement. Meanwhile, the white establishment largely gets off scot-free, with Digger and Ed’s clueless superiors eventually rewarding them for their zany, crook-catching ways much has you’d expect at the conclusion of any light-weight buddy cop movie.

Such compromises though are perhaps inevitable when we consider that ‘Cotton..’ was a major studio venture released several years before ‘Shaft’ and ‘Superfly’ helped make the black action film a viable proposition at the U.S. box office. If Davis was required to take a somewhat whimsical approach to ghetto life and black criminality in order to get his project to the screen though, he and his collaborators nonetheless pulled out all the stops to deliver a eminently entertaining picture, full of solid performances, wild action scenes and evocative location shooting, all of which make it well worth checking out, even if it fails to hit the lofty heights of its source material.

What I liked about the film most of all though is that it reminded me of reading the book – and when the book in question is this good, that alone is enough to earn the movie a pass.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Cinema Trips:
Free Fire
(Ben Wheatley, 2017)

In spite of all the plaudits director Ben Wheatley has received since his disturbing kitchen sink/crime/horror mash-up ‘Kill List’ first put his name on people’s lips in 2011, I must admit that I felt quite sorry for him following the release of ‘High Rise’ last year.

That film was his most ambitious and high profile project to date by quite some distance, and, suffice to say, many in the world of what I suppose I’ll have to take to grit my teeth and call “alternative culture” were on tenterhooks at the thought of a director like Wheatley helming a relatively big budget take on one of J.G. Ballard’s most uncompromising novels. But, as the reviews began to trickle in, enthusiasm (on my part at least) swiftly began to wane.

Having your big break-out movie savaged by mainstream critics who have missed the point or were predisposed to hate it is one thing - but imagine how Wheatley must have felt, clicking on links as they popped up in his feed and reading a succession of thoughtful, well-informed writers and bloggers presaging their articles by declaring their earnest admiration both for Ballard’s book and for Wheatley’s earlier films… then going on to regretfully express their opinion that he actually seemed to have made a bit of a hash of it.

I mean, that’s got to hurt pretty hard – especially when working in a segment of the film industry that still relies largely upon critical adulation and word of mouth to push punters through the gates.

After such a setback, one might have reasonably expected Wheatley to retreat into the shadows and spend some time licking his wounds, like previous contenders Richard Stanley or Neil Marshall before him. But, thankfully, our boy also seems keen to cultivate a reputation as one of the most determinedly prolific filmmakers around, and, though he doesn’t quite crank ‘em out as relentlessly as, say, Takashi Miike (which is probably for the best), he’s nonetheless back in cinemas, less than a year after ‘High Rise’ crashed and burned, with ‘Free Fire’.

And, by god, it’s a knock-out. The cinematic equivalent of straight jaw punch, seemingly designed to to instantly obliterate memories of his previous project’s over-reach and indulgence from the minds of potential future backers – which thankfully makes it a pretty great time for us as viewers, too.

If there is one overriding concern that can be seen to have emerged from Wheatley’s work to date, it is a fascination with the ugly results what occur when quote-unquote “tough guys” (violent or ego-driven men of one kind or another) are pushed into situations way behind their control, often in confined and treacherous environments; a kind of anti-Hawksian dynamic that sees the “men on the scene” heroism of the traditional genre movie uncomfortably shattered into a million pieces.

This thread can easily be traced through ‘Kill List’, ‘A Field in England’ (2013) and ‘High Rise’, and we can perhaps speculate that what most appealed to the director when conceiving ‘Free Fire’ was the chance to spend an entire movie taking this notion to joyously ridiculous new extremes – with “joyous” perhaps being the operative word.

The first thing to get out of the way here then is to make clear that, where previous Wheatley films have tended to be somewhat dour, unsettling experiences, their humour arising from toxic social awkwardness and their tone black in the extreme, ‘Free Fire’ by contrast represents perhaps the first time the director has dropped his patina of "seriousness" and delivered more of a MOVIE than a FILM, abandoning his exploration of aberrant psychology and grim social realism to instead reward his viewers with a guilt-free thrill ride of laughs, shocks and lovingly reiterated genre clichés – a fun flick in other words, if admittedly one predicated almost entirely upon mindless violence and the wanton infliction of pain… but, we’ll get to that.

Very much a ‘high concept’ joint as far as action/crime movies go, the set-up for ‘Free Fire’, in case you’ve not read about it elsewhere, goes as follows:

In the seemingly arbitrary setting of Boston, 1978, a pair of Irish Republican fighters, along with their American street punk accomplices, arrive at an abandoned dockside factory to meet with an eccentric white South African arms dealer, his ex-Black Panther partner and their own additional muscle. The ‘fixer’ who brokered the deal is also present, as is the pretty girl who initially put the various parties in touch (because hey, it’s a movie).

The meeting is tense to say the least. The assorted bad-asses do not get along too well, and trash talk and dick-swinging are just barely kept in check. Certain elements of the deal are not exactly what the Irish agreed upon, but nonetheless, ten crates of assault rifles are about to change hands, and the ex-Panther guy is counting the money.

We’re maybe twenty minutes or so into the movie by this point, when it becomes clear that one of the arms dealer’s driver/loader back up guys has a serious personal beef with one of the Irish’s local hired punks. Attempts to resolve this do not go well, and, before long, the shooting starts.

About seventy minutes later, the shooting ends.

Filling the interim is a single, real time, one-location action scene that I for one thought was a pretty extraordinary piece of filmmaking, but please don’t just take my word for it – if you think this whole business sounds like your idea of a good time, pick up a ticket to your nearest screening, and I’m confident you won’t be disappointed.

I’ve already read some reviews criticising ‘Free Fire’ as a characterless technical exercise, but to be honest I think such an accusation is way off target. True, we don’t get a lot of back story to fill us in on the participants’ lives outside of this single night of carnage, but neither do we need any. This is a minimal, self-contained action movie, and thus what Wheatley and his writing partner Amy Jump wisely give us is minimal, self-contained action movie characterisation, of the best possible kind.

We may not get any explanatory monologues or heart-string tugging childhood flashbacks (thank god), but, in the grand tradition of directors like Hawks and Siegel, we learn a huge amount about these characters simply through their body language and the way they relate to each other, as we find ourselves sizing them up as if we were a stranger blundering into the room, trying to figure who to stand behind and who to keep well away from.

Naturally, it is the actors who must carry the weight of putting these characterisations across, and the cast – comprising a great number of vaguely familiar people who have no doubt done sterling work in modern movies I never bothered to watch – do it absolutely beautifully. Just great ensemble stuff all round.

Surprisingly for a movie so entirely concerned with action, ‘Free Fire’ is in fact an extremely talky film (even if 30% of words spoken are probably either ‘fuck’ or ‘aargh’), somehow managing to allow its characters to speak and interact throughout, even as they are in the process of trying to inflict dreadful violence upon each other, making the film feel at times like some strange variant on the perennial ‘Old Dark House’ formula wherein everyone is continuously letting rip with high calibre weaponry.

I don’t know if I made it clear in my earlier synopsis that ‘Free Fire’ is as much a comedy as it is an action movie, but, well, it is, and it’s an extremely good comedy at that, with these exaggerated, barely believable tough guys bouncing off each other like champs, as Wheatley & Jump’s somewhat glib, wise-cracking dialogue prompts more genuine laughs and post-screening quote-offs than any film I’ve seen in recent memory.

(As the most broadly comic participant in the shooting match, Sharlto Copley as Vernon – the South African – proves particularly good value, coming on like a cross between Maurizio Merli in an Italian poliziotteschi and Will Ferrell in ‘Anchorman’, as the other characters’ wordlessly contemptuous “is this guy for real?!” responses to his clumsy antics provide a constant source of amusement.)

As the shooting begins, viewers will naturally find themselves weighing up the chances of the different characters, mentally placing their bets on who they expect to go down first, who they expect to be the last (wo?)man standing, and so on. But Wheatley’s masterstroke in ‘Free Fire’ I think comes from his rejection of the predictable, slasher style “picked off one by one” approach that could have seen the movie degenerate into a coldly mechanical multi-player death-match.

Instead, every one of the eight or nine major characters manages to stay alive until the gun fight’s final act, keeping all of them ‘in play’ even as they accumulate increasingly debilitating combinations of flesh wounds and limb damage, meaning we are eventually treated to the sight of the bullet-riddled combatants hobbling and dragging themselves across the increasingly battle-damaged sets, lapsing into occasional bouts of unconsciousness before an overload of pain and adrenalin propels them forward, increasingly unhinged, toward the resolution of their own sorry personal vendettas. This gradual collapse into entropy adds a sense of Godot-esque absurdity to proceedings that, needless to say, Wheatley absolutely relishes as things take on an air of desperate, baroque madness – a zero sum game as blackly pathetic as anything in his previous films.

Alongside all this, it almost goes without saying that ‘Free Fire’ is an astonishing achievement from a technical standpoint – a total master class in good action direction, fight choreography and editing, as Wheatley succeeds in cutting between the activities of up to ten independently motivated characters occupying different positions within the same cluttered set, keeping things coherent, suspenseful, gripping and visceral at all times, never bludgeoning us into insensibility the way many contemporary action directors tend to, and only allowing moments of chaos to temporarily break through when they represent the confused POV of characters for whom events are simply moving too fast to take in.

Given that the bulk of the film represents a single, real time sequence shot over the course of what I’d imagine must have been many weeks, simply maintaining continuity through different shots must have been a Herculean task, requiring the filmmakers to keep track not only of the locations and sight-lines of all the characters in relation to each other, but also of the spread of props, cover, weapons, ammunition and so forth across the set, not to mention the ever-multiplying injuries and damage to clothes, etc etc. I mean, seventy solid minutes of fight scene must have been a tough gig for all concerned, but I think the efforts of the rarely heralded continuity staff deserve a particular round of applause on this one.

I realise that official ‘making of..’ featurettes for contemporary films are generally dull as ditch water, but I would genuine love to find out about how they went about making the technical side of ‘Free Fire’ work as well as it does, and look forward to watching any such material available when I purchase the film on blu-ray – as I inevitably will, on the very day it is released more than likely.

In fact, it is difficult for me to fully express the extent to which I enjoyed ‘Free Fire’. I genuinely think it is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years.

If I found any fault with the film, it arose mainly from the occasionally shaky application of the period setting; some of the dialogue and reactions assigned to Brie Larson's character in particular seem decidedly contemporary, and the Tarantino-esque 'needle drop' soundtrack also gets a bit heavy handed in places (it's hard not to cringe for instance when some Ayler-esque free jazz bursts in to accompany a sequence in which the film's only black character goes on the rampage).

As a marriage between the pure visual kineticism of a good action movie and the thespian chops of a good, multi-hander stage play though, ‘Free Fire’ works brilliantly, and if auteurists or future thesis-writers – ever sniffy about the idea of films actually being fun - may not wish it to be considered as a contender for Wheatley’s best film with regard to the realisation of his own personal vision and so forth, I nonetheless foresee it remaining my own favourite amongst his movies, by quite some distance and for quite some time to come.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Some Notes on ‘Vampyr’ (1931) as an Ur-Text for the European horror film.

I’m afraid to report that I have recently become rather fixated on Carl Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’ – so much so in fact that I have spent an inordinate amount of time banging out the interminable essay on it below, when I should really have been working on something a bit more concise to entertain you with here. 

Nonetheless, I hope you will take the time to persevere with my temporary diversion into somewhat Film Studies-y territory, and hope you will be able to get something out of it. It should be noted that this piece is particularly skewed towards readers who are already somewhat familiar with European horror, and also that it will make a hell of a lot more sense to readers who have actually seen ‘Vampyr’. (It is currently available, in just about as good a quality as it can be seen anywhere, on Youtube here.)


When Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film ‘Vampyr’ – the first project completed by the Danish director since his celebrated ‘La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc’ five years earlier - premiered in Berlin in May 1932, there was, it is fair to say, a certain amount of consternation. In the words of Jean & Dale Drum in their book ‘My Only Great Passion: The Life & Films of Carl Th. Dreyer’ (Scarecrow Press, 2000);

“The audience evidently hissed and booed in equal measure with hurrahs, and it is reported that photographer Karl Hoffman and actor Willy Fritsch stood up and shouted at a group of noisy whistlers, ‘Pay the Piper!’ No one was able to explain this odd behaviour. In Vienna, it was reported that the premiere was something of a scandal, with riotous behaviour by the public, which demonstrated noisily against the film and stormily demanded their money back. The police had to step in and restore quiet with their nightsticks.” (1)

Reading this account, Euro-Horror devotees will likely recall the tales that swirl around the Paris premiere of Jean Rollin’s ‘Le Viol du Vampire’, which took place some thirty-six years later against the volatile backdrop of May 1968 – a premiere that, if we’re to believe published descriptions, sounds broadly similar to that of ‘Vampyr’, minus perhaps the “hurrahs”.

Indeed, beyond their status as rare examples of vampire films shot in France, there are a surprising number of similarities between the two films, particularly with regard to the hostile manner in which they were initially received by their respective publics.

Both films were extremely eccentric independent productions ill-advisedly pushed by their distributors as local responses to more commercially-minded series of horror pictures that had recently captured the public’s imagination (the early Universal horrors in the case of Dreyer’s film, the successes of Hammer and their imitators in Rollin’s). Both films furthermore compounded matters by deliberately harking back to older aesthetic forms deemed unfashionable by viewers at the time of their release (silent cinema in ‘Vampyr’, matinee mystery serials in ‘Le Viol..’).

More pertinently however, ‘Vampyr’ and ‘Le Viol du Vampire’ both achieved the rare distinction of managing to provoke violent outrage in their viewers, not by presenting any scandalous or offensive content, but simply by frustrating the audience’s demand for a linear narrative, and by refusing them the comforts of conventional cinematic syntax.

The difference however is that, whereas Rollin’s film has become more palatable over the years (I would argue in fact that it now makes for uproariously enjoyable viewing, whether taken as a time capsule of the rebellious, improvisatory energy of May ’68, as a roadmap for its director’s future obsessions, or simply as a wild & woolly Euro-horror freak-out), ‘Vampyr’ by contrast remains singularly unapproachable, liable to leave first time viewers as mystified as those original Berlin patrons were eighty-five years ago. (It is not for nothing that Alfred Hitchcock apparently deemed it “the only motion picture worth watching… twice”.)


Irrespective of the great esteem in which ‘Vampyr’ and its director are now held, it is nonetheless one of the most confounding, elliptical, genuinely inexplicable works in the entire European canon – a prototypical weird movie whose failure to adhere to any set of expected cinematic norms has led critic Tony Rayns to tentatively identify it as a 1930s precursor to the work of David Lynch. (2)

Even this comparison though gives too much credence to ‘Vampyr’s potential for acceptance into quote-unquote “normality”. Whilst even Lynch’s worst enemies must credit him as a technically gifted filmmaker, ‘Vampyr’s ragged, often seemingly accidental, parade of loose ends, continuity disruptions, blurred perspectives and fluffed effects by contrast seems as if it could have been specifically designed to alienate even Dreyer’s most ardent supporters.

Indeed, when reading that the aftermath of ‘Vampyr’s inevitable commercial failure led Dreyer to a nervous breakdown that curtailed his directorial career for over a decade, those who recently watched the film for the first time may be inclined to suppose that he began suffering from this breakdown whilst still in the editing room. Recalling the syphilitic fever-dream of Bram Stoker’s ‘The Lair of the White Worm’, ‘Vampyr’ plays at times like the work of an man who is actually in the process of going insane, his authorial choices seeming to defy all reason.

It is all the more remarkable then, when reading around the film and viewing it more closely, so discover that Dreyer’s methodology in assembling ‘Vampyr’ was in fact extremely exacting and deliberate, the consistent - if agitated - ‘rhythm’ of his editing discernable through every last non-sequitur insert and impossible POV shot.

Whilst the film’s technique initially feels pretty ragged (a conclusion encouraged by the extremely rough quality of the surviving prints), closer attention reveals that many of Dreyer’s camera movements and transitions between shots are actually very elegant and imaginative – clearly the work of a cinematic artist in full control of the relatively limited technology at his disposal. (3)

Whereas naïve or unintentional examples of ‘weird cinema’ will almost inevitably contain passages of lucidity against which the weirdness may be contrasted, Dreyer’s determination to “problematise” (as Rayns puts it in his commentary) just about every shot in his movie, either through irrational editing or disorientating mise en scene, seems to have been entirely methodical, rather than the result of the kind of technical shortcomings or poor visual story-telling that are often blamed for creating such effects.

Whilst the most obvious interpretation of ‘Vampyr’ (the easiest way to live with it, you might say) is thus to read it as a cinematic rendering of a bad dream, Dreyer’s technique is actually full of details that render this conclusion just as problematic as any other. The abrasive, somewhat ‘mechanised’ editing style, the highly naturalistic and tactile settings, the numerous scenes that range beyond the scope of the ‘dreamer’s perspective, the vast quantities of explanatory text and (singularly unhelpful) background information provided to the viewer – none of these things seem quite in keeping with an exercise in what we would now recognise as “dream logic”.

The film’s haunted, almost paranormal-seeming imagery certainly has the potential to become a *literal* bad dream for those studying it (whatever your take on ‘Vampyr’, you can expect its litany of staring, corpse-like faces, backwards gravediggers, peg-legged creepers and floating cartwheels to invade your sleep for days after viewing), but its construction paradoxically feels far more grounded and cerebral than something intended as a ‘dream’, prompting that particular brain-itch that occurs when following a conventional story that we’ve simply lost track of.

Some initially inexplicable “dream-like” details (such the flashing silhouette of a bird seen on the door to the doctor’s office when the peg-legged soldier is electrocuted(?) by the vengeful ghost near the film’s conclusion) are revealed on closer analysis to be at least somewhat coherent (a caged bird was fleetingly seen in the same room earlier in the film). Other moments though (such as the protagonist’s stilted exchange with the doctor about the absence of children and dogs) remain utterly opaque – either a deliberate attempt to create dream-like incoherence, or the editing decisions of a mad man, referencing earlier details he has already sliced from the print…. and at almost a century’s remove, who can say for sure? (4)

In short, ‘Vampyr’ is a film that fails to fully adhere to any pattern you might try to place upon it, lending it a persistent ambiguity that renders it endlessly fascinating – a gateway to genuine delirium that is rare in any kind of cinema, and must have been nigh on unprecedented in 1932.


Irrespective of the fact that the majority of viewers are likely to have been absolutely perplexed by ‘Vampyr’ when it first appeared, Dreyer seems to have been proud of his work on the film, and – like all truly weird filmmakers through the ages – firmly believed that his extraordinary attempt to cash-in on the contemporary popularity of ‘mystery’ movies had real commercial potential. And, although his apparent failure to understand the all-too-obvious reasons for his film’s initial failure seem to have caused him a significant amount of grief, the director’s oft-stated intention to make ‘Vampyr’ “a film unlike any other” can at least be judged to have been an overwhelming success.

Whilst ‘Vampyr’ is still indisputably a unique proposition however, I would argue that its influence can be strongly felt in many, many subsequent films; in fact, I think we can make the case that Dreyer’s film represents the genesis of a particular style of filmmaking that didn’t reach full flower until over twenty five year after its swift disappearance from cinemas in 1932.

The osmosis-like diffusion of the film’s influence was helped no doubt by the dedicated cult that seems to have sprung up surprisingly quickly to keep ‘Vampyr’s legacy alive as battered variant prints traversed the globe in the decades following its release, and there are certainly enough direct tributes to ‘Vampyr’ in European horror films of the 1960s and ‘70s to make it abundantly clear that the people directing such pictures were aware of the film.

(Examples that immediately spring to mind include the tribute to Dreyer’s ‘glass-topped coffin’ sequence in Renato Polselli’s The Vampire & The Ballerina (1962), the River Styx imagery and tolling bell that opens Giorgio Ferroni’s ‘The Mill of the Stone Women’ (1960) and the surreal drift through the skull & candle decorated room in Rollin’s Le Frisson des Vampires (1971) – not to mention the descent into the alchemist’s workshop in Dario Argento’s ‘Inferno’ (1980), a film whose rambling, episodic structure and obsession with the exploration of hidden/mysterious spaces makes it feel at times almost like a blockbuster remake of ‘Vampyr’.)

Beyond these more overt tributes though, I believe that the overall influence of Dreyer’s strange little movie upon the development of European horror cinema was far wider and more pervasive, to the extent that it can retrospectively be identified as a core component of the genre’s DNA. Whether through its drifting currents of irrational eeriness, its attempts to deliberately disorient its viewers or its paradoxical combination of modernist technical precision and foggy, mystical obfuscation, ‘Vampyr’ *feels* “Euro-cult” through and through, readily identifying itself as one of the key urtexts of the multi-faceted entity we have come to think of as Euro-Horror.


In order to keep things to a manageable length, I will try to break down the key aspects of European horror’s debt to ‘Vampyr’ one by one, as follows;

1. Unglued Narrative.

The downplaying of narrative coherence in favour of pure, cinematic effect – effectively approaching a film as a series of visionary ‘set-pieces’ with narrative tissue reluctantly stretched around them – is something that became a defining characteristic of European (and particularly Italian) horror during its golden age.

Of course you could argue that this “pure cinema” approach can be traced back to the influence of Hitchcock, but then, given that Hitchcock publically expressed his admiration for ‘Vampyr’, this stuff all goes loops back on itself I suppose.

Either way, euro-horror directors from Argento and Fulci on down therough the canon certainly took it upon themselves to pursue the “sensation over story” agenda to an extent that would have been unthinkable in the Anglo-American commercial cinema within which Hitchcock was operating, and it is this comprehensive disdain for narrative structure that we can see being practiced obsessively – some might say definitively - by Dreyer in ‘Vampyr’.

During the 1960s, it could be argued that euro-horror filmmakers hadn’t quite grasped the power of this principle – or at least, the creative freedoms that would allow them to fully embrace it were not yet in operation – and as such, many of the ‘60s gothics I’ve reviewed here involve sprawling wastelands of dull, expositional padding between a handful of hair-raising “cool bits”.

By the dawn of the ‘70s however, directors seem to have caught up with what Dreyer was laying down four decades earlier. In an era that saw the emergence of a wilder, post-counter culture aesthetic sensibility combining with the rapid retreat of censorship, narrative padding withered and died, giving way to pictures that rejoiced in a near non-stop onslaught of heavy, fantastical atmospherics and stylised ‘shock’ imagery, often of a heavily sadistic or erotic character and largely unfettered by the demands of conventional storytelling. In other words, a weaponised, exploitation-happy reworking of precisely the techniques employed by Dreyer in ‘Vampyr’.

Which brings us neatly on to…

2. Delirium.

It was at this stage in development of “Euro-Horror” that we see the sublimation of narrative reaching a point where filmmakers began to deliberately seek to evoke a sense of disorientation or outright sensory delirium in their viewers. Kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, call it what you will, but the giddy feeling of dislocation and chaos achieved by directors such as Renato Polselli and Luigi Batzilla was once again pre-empted (and some would say more or less perfected) forty years earlier by ‘Vampyr’ – a film that takes the core expressionist aim of unsettling its viewers and pursues it far more aggressively (and, to modern eyes at least, more effectively) than the comfortably static tableaus of ‘..Caligari’ and ‘Nosferatu’ managed to.

At one point in ‘Vampyr’s (already extremely frayed) narrative for instance – just prior to the celebrated ‘glass-topped coffin’ sequence – Dreyer actually contrives to split his protagonist (the film’s financier, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who, as has frequently been noted, bears an uncanny resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft) into no less than three separate entities, apparently existing on three separate plains of being.

As de Gunzburg’s physical body slumbers on a park bench, having apparently fallen asleep following a blood transfusion (don’t ask), Dreyer echoes the independently mobile shadows showcased earlier in his film by sending de Gunzburg’s transparent ‘spirit’ off a-wondering. This ‘spirit’ de Gunsburg thus arrives at the lair of the film’s sinister doctor, where we find a third iteration of de Gunzburg stretched out for burial in a saw-dust filled coffin.

Our natural inclination here might be to read ‘spirit de Gunzburg’ as an elaborate transition device bridging the character’s ‘waking’ and ‘dream’ states as he experiences a nightmare of his own funeral, but, as discussed above, Dreyer is scrupulous in his determination to deny us this neat rationalisation, purposefully blurring the boundaries between wakefulness/reality and dream/fantasy to the point where such a distinction is no longer remotely useful to us in trying to interpret the subsequent action.

For instance - as he investigates the doctor's lair, spirit-de Gunsburg not only interacts with the objects and other characters around him, he also obtains information regarding the location of his kidnapped sweetheart that his waking self will later employ in rescuing her. Are we to take it therefore that, rather than simply experiencing a dream, our protagonist is actually partaking in some manner of astral travel (a bizarre idea that surely few other filmmakers would dare drop it on us, sans explanation)?

Shortly thereafter, such concerns become irrelevant as our primary POV shifts once more to the third iteration of de Gunsburg, immobilised in the coffin. And, assuming we accept the suggestion that spirit-de Gunsburg was eavesdropping on events in the “real” world, this de Gunsburg # 3 represents, well… what exactly…?

Do you feel that deliciously familiar sense of utter disorientation setting in, Euro-Horror fans..? None of the clearly signposted blurry screen effects or filtered ‘dream-vision’ that were called in to retain order in, say, Corman’s Poe films are in evidence here; instead we’re dropped clear off the map into unknown realms, a question mark hanging over all that follows.

By the time we see de Gunsburg # 1 awaken on his bench as a quartet of pallbearers tramp by behind him bearing what may or may not be his own coffin, any grasp we may previously have imagined we had over the different plains of being operating in this film has been entirely trashed.

Such rampant metaphysical uncertainty, combined with the growing sense of dislocation of we shift between de Gunsburg’s one, two and three was, we must suppose, entirely the point of the not inconsiderable trouble Dreyer went to in constructing these sequences.

By affecting such a bewildering series of transitions, Dreyer already seems to want to drag us beyond the cliché of a horror movie “bad dream” sequence, instead forcing the audience to actively participate in trying to make sense of what they are seeing, purposefully disordering their senses so as to render the coffin set-piece which follows – its provenance within the worlds of the story now thoroughly unclear – all the more powerful as a result.

Though they were inevitably far less careful or exacting in their craft, it is precisely this methodology – along with the same aggressive and deliberate rejection of rational cause & effect – that free-wheeling exploitation directors like Polselli and Batzilla employed again and again in their unfathomable eroto-psychedelic stews of the 1970s, and that was also intermittently pursued during the same era by such bigger names in the field as Mario Bava (in ‘Lisa & The Devil’ (1972)), Riccardo Freda (in ‘Tragic Ceremony’ (1972)) and Jess Franco (in Venus In Furs (1969) and ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’ (1972)), to name but a few.

3. ‘Real-Unreal’ Location Shooting.

Though the naturalistic use of locations to generate sinister effects in horror films can be traced back at least as far as ‘Nosferatu’ in 1920, that film saw Murnau using location-shooting primarily to create strikingly Romantic [capital ‘R’ here, folks – Ed.], quasi-mystical tableaux – static backdrops against which human figures, when they appear at all, recall lone travellers intruding into the corners of 19th century landscape paintings to provide a sense of scale.

Needless to say, this conception of location shooting is very different from that seen in ‘Vampyr’. Pre-empting the production ethos of innumerable European genre films to come, Dreyer’s film was shot entirely on location primarily for budgetary reasons, to avoid the expense of studio hire and set construction.

Taking full creative advantage of this situation, Dreyer has his misshapen characters racing perpetually around a labyrinthine, ill-defined landscape of disused factory corridors, open fields, cheaply wallpapered hotel rooms and cramped chateau parlours, the director’s eccentric framing choices and the production’s weirdly camp ‘set dressing’ imbuing these found spaces with their own bizarre character, even as they remain identifiable as part of a real, lived in world.

Whereas the grand, painterly character of ‘Nosferatu’s exterior photography was evoked surprisingly rarely by mid-century euro-horror productions, the shabbier, less clear-cut, more genuinely unheimlich manipulation of the real world seen in ‘Vampyr’ has I think achieved a far more pervasive influence over the genre.

Most notably, Dreyer’s approach seems – whether by accident or design (though I suspect the former) – to have been co-opted pretty much wholesale by Jess Franco as he went about cementing his signature style from the dawn of the ‘70s onward. Using little save for his own in-camera technique and directorial suss, Franco repeatedly managed to transform the endless series of Iberian hotel rooms and concrete apartment complexes necessitated by his non-existent budgets into brooding, otherworldly spaces that at times strongly recall those created by Dreyer in ‘Vampyr’.

(In particular, the scene early in ‘Vampyr’ in which de Gunsburg intensely scrutinises the unsettling framed picture on the wall of his room at the inn - a picture that we then see in extreme close-up as the camera glides, fascinated, across its surface - will strike Franco fans as a move straight out of Uncle Jess’s playbook.)

Further echoes of this kind of methodology can of course be found in every Euro-Horror film that ever sent its cast rampaging around the nooks and crannies of an ill-kept villa or chateau, whilst Dreyer’s seemingly obsessive interest in doors, windows, keys and locks (the sheer amount of screen time in ‘Vampyr’ that is dedicated to shots of figures looming behind slowly opening doors is extraordinary) is mirrored in the visual syntax of countless Italian gialli and gothic horrors.

Likewise, Dreyer’s extensive and apparently improvised use of smeared windowpanes, glass latticework and other such devices to obscure and distort the action (an overly literal nod to the supposed origins of ‘Vampyr’s story in Sheridan LeFanu’s ‘In a Glass Darkly’, perhaps?) is a device that was taken to extremes by later horror directors.

Irrespective of 'Vampyr's sanctified status within the arthouse canon in fact, the film's budget conscious manipulations of reality – the implicit eeriness of the way in which Dreyer’s camera transforms mundane details into something entirely outré - have an unmistakable “b movie” feel to them, especially when viewed in the light of over eight decades of subsequent horror films.


Just as instructive as the similarities between ‘Vampyr’ and later Euro-Horror traditions though are the differences - those aspects of Dreyer’s film that subsequent generations of filmmakers chose *not* to pursue.

Whilst European horror of the ‘60s and ‘70s frequently aligned its aggressive rejection of rationality with the atavistic invocation of a ‘weird’, pre-rational past returning to undermine the 20th century present - as represented by the cobwebbed chateaus, undead ancestors, witches curses and hallucinogenic historical flashbacks of revved up pulp gothic horror - ‘Vampyr’ labours under no such retromantic baggage.

According to interviews with Dreyer, ‘Vampyr’ was conceived with reference to the excitement surrounding various strains of modern art holding sway at the time in Paris, and indeed, one of the things that continues to make ‘Vampyr’ such a unique viewing experience despite the vast reach of its subsequent influence is the way in which it strives to cross-breed the inevitable atavism of a vampire story with a forward-looking, almost balefully futurist aesthetic approach that feels entirely at odds with later horror directors’ determination to pull us back into a woolly, soft-focus fantasy of the feudal past.

We have already mentioned Dreyer’s jaggedly mechanical editing patterns, full of inexplicable inter-cuts and jarring shifts in POV, faintly suggestive of the ‘ordered chaos’ of Cubism – and this is reflected in much of the film’s most potently peculiar imagery, which again and again seems to place not only people, but entire mechanical/industrial processes, under the sway of vampires and ghosts. From the apparently levitating cart-wheels that herald the vampire’s exhortations to silence, to the capering shades of the phantom factory workers(?) she commands, to the grinding cogs of the flour mill and the mechanised fate of the doctor – this literal “dark, satanic mill” (if you will) represents dense nexus of imagery that has rarely, if ever, been invoked since by a traditional gothic horror film.

Even the extraordinary details of the vampire’s staking scene follow suit, as – in an idea apparently taken from genuine folkloric sources – the malevolent being is literally pinned to the earth, like a butterfly on a collector’s board, by a gigantic iron nail hammered straight through her body into the ground.

A notably industrial, rather than rustic, implement (somewhat like an extended railroad spike perhaps?), this unconventional stake and the violent, clanging blows delivered to it by our protagonist have a mechanical/modernist quality to them that, again, has never subsequently been repeated in similar sequences in later films – an omission that I find quite surprising, given how quaintly ineffectual it makes the little wooden stakes more routinely handed out by movie Van Helsings seem in comparison.

In contrast to the shadow-clogged, supernatural realm of the film’s factory moreover, the chateau where ‘Vampyr’s human characters reside feels dead inside – static, mournful and devoid of the energy harnessed by the representatives of the undead who intrude upon it from outside. Within this schema, the doctor’s ghostly, banjo-playing, peg-legged accomplice is suggestive of an ill-fated soldier or factory worker, exacting his vengeance upon the anaemic remnants of the local aristocracy, whilst the doctor himself - his apparent penchant for alchemy or necromancy (or something) not withstanding – brings sleep and death upon the antiquated residents of the chateau through the scientific, 20th century means of blood transfusions and chemical poisons.

That the doctor’s ‘modern’ methodology turns against him to bring about his pointedly industrial demise may count as one of cinema’s weirder instances of “live by the sword..” style poetic justice, but, as ever, Dreyer’s precise intent here is difficult to fathom.

As the doctor’s death is (rather awkwardly) inter-cut with de Gunsburg and his dream-lady’s escape back across the Stygian waters to an impossibly romantic sun-dappled grove of trees, is the director encouraging us to celebrate the return to a kind of pre-industrial idyll, following an anxious dream of grinding, fatalistic machinery..? Is nature/wakefulness/love/life triumphing over a fantasy of mechanisation, loneliness and death? In fact, as with so many inter-war horror films, could we even be looking here at yet another buried reflection on the horrors of the Great War..?

Well, needless to say, the director’s inspired final image – of the vast cogs of the mill grinding to a silent halt – comprehensively derails such easy trains of thought.

Are we to read this closing image as the end of the dream we’ve just been sitting through (potentially including the happy ending the dreamer and his beau are now experiencing)? Or merely as proof that the evil spirits that have previously animated the abandoned mill/factory have, in time-honoured fashion, dissipated alongside their vampire masters? Have these grinding wheels ceased to turn in finality (and if so, is this a ‘death’ we should be celebrating, given the cold environs of the chateau), or, are they simply pausing to allow the dreamer his flight back to reality (whatever that may be), before they (like a very textbook example of early 20th C. anxiety) begin turning and crushing once more, the moment he closes his eyes?

Like any true moment of cinematic poetry, such tortured explanations remain both insufficient and unnecessary. In terms of ‘feeling’ – and that, like subsequent European horror, is the level upon which I believe ‘Vampyr’ is primarily operating - the shot itself silently/wordlessly gives us all we need to know.

Meanwhile, if I began this appropriately rambling, inconclusive piece unsure of whether or not I even liked ‘Vampyr’ as a film, and unsure whether or not I could really buy it as the great work that Dreyer’s champions would have us believe it is… well, it looks as if I’ve found my answer, to that question if to no other.


(1)This quote is taken from an extract from the Drums’ book reproduced in the booklet accompanying the 2008 Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD release of ‘Vampyr’, which is also the source for all of the quotes from Dreyer, Hitchcock etc used in this piece.

(2) See Rayns’ commentary track to the Eureka release of ‘Vampyr’, in which he likens the film’s effect upon contemporary audiences to viewers of ‘Twin Peaks’ 50+ years later.

(3) In this respect, I would particularly draw your attention to the eerily smooth “roaming” camerawork showcased in some of ‘Vampyr’s interior scenes, which moves far beyond the standard logic of character POV/reaction shots, occasionally even seeming to crudely pre-empt Kubrick’s definitively sinister use of steadicam technology in ‘The Shining’.

(4) Another possibility when attempting to explain the children/dogs discussion is that it simply represents a protest on Dreyer’s part against the necessity of making a sound film. That ‘Vampyr’ adheres strongly to the aesthetic of a silent film is undeniable, so could the decision to have the first significant dialogue scene in his film consist of characters mumbling absolute nonsense to each other be read as a statement on Dreyer’s part re: the superflousness of such scenes to cinema as an art form? Either way, it certainly can’t have helped the mood of an audience who paid to see a sound film.