Saturday, 28 February 2009

VAMPYR & MARTIN

VAMPYR & MARTIN
DIR: Carl Th. Dreyer & George A. Romero
France/Germany 1932 72mins USA 1977 91mins

Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR and George Romero’s MARTIN, two of the finest vampire movies ever made; two of the most unusual and, perhaps, completely opposing takes on the myth. VAMPYR: utterly magical, otherworldly, onieric (if you’ll forgive the word, but I really like the way it sounds); a film that creates a world we might well recognize from the kind of dreams that haunt us all day long and make us wonder if, in fact, we’ve woken. A film in which shadows take on a life of their own, dancing with each other. MARTIN: resolutely realist, set here and now and repeatedly invoking the idea that there is no real magic (though an unspoken ‘anymore’ seems to linger). It uses the figure of the vampire to comment on itself and on the society in which we live, to melancholy and (to me) heartbreaking effect…

Come closer, I’ll tell you more.

The recent restoration of VAMPYR (which is what we’re screening here) has been a revelation to me. So much so that it has overtaken Nosferatu in my affections (and that’s saying a hell of a lot).

The dream-like atmosphere, the sense of entering a world of magic, where the natural order no longer applies; where the rules of daytime/normality are shattered, held me utterly rapt when first I saw it. You’re in for a treat.

Hitchcock called VAMPYR: ‘The only film worth watching… twice’. And he wasn’t kidding. It is an astonishing film. It’s imagery like nothing else of the period. It’s ability to evoke the uncanny feeling of a dark, fantastical dream, without resorting to wilful obscurity/oddity for it’s own sake is compelling and fascinating. So few films come anywhere close to the achievement that Dreyer does here. So many films have tried and failed. Dreyer’s achievements in VAMPYR – consistently overlooked and downplayed by the critical establishment, one can only assume out of snobbery towards to genre – are certainly equal to anything seen in his PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. For my money VAMPYR is one of the few true representations of magic and the uncanny on film. One of the few films to approach the heights of what has been achieved in literature by the likes of M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu (whose Carmilla is loosely the basis for VAMPYR), Algernon Blackwood, H.P. Lovecraft, W.H. Hodgeson or indeed the more striking passages of Stoker’s Dracula. It is one of the great dark dreams of the cinema. I hope it finds its way into your head the way it has mine.

Director George A. Romero will always be best known for his Zombie films, but there are those amongst us who believe that MARTIN is his masterpiece. It’s not the crowd-pleasing funhouse ride of DAWN OF THE DEAD, but what it lacks in comic book action and gore, it more than makes up for in humanity. It is an intensely moving film, melancholic and, in some senses, mundane, but deeper and more disturbing than any of the dead films to date.

MARTIN achieves what Pan’s Labyrinth achieved more recently in terms of ambiguity. You can take the film one of two ways, each as valid as the other. Either Martin is a vampire, and this is just the reality of how a vampire lives in a world that’s given up on magic, or he’s a disturbed youth acting out vampiric fantasies. Either way, his loneliness and sadness are deeply touching and, despite his actions onscreen, we are always on Martin’s side. We empathise with him, over all the ‘normal’ characters in the film.

Some people point to TAXI DRIVER or RAGING BULL as examples of great character studies onscreen, but I’ve always been immune to Scorsese’s charms (well, not entirely – I have soft spots for both KING OF COMEDY and CAPE FEAR: go figure). MARTIN however, gives me something new, something more, each time I see it. There are no fangs in MARTIN except plastic ones, no shape-changing, no bats, no rising from the grave. Romero’s style is largely naturalistic, as is his storytelling. Real World versus ‘Movie World’ logic is a constant conflict. There’s an aching beauty to the way the story is set within a decaying industrial town near Pittsburgh. Everything seems worn and thin and faded. Everything is dying. ‘There is no real magic’ Martin says repeatedly in the film, and indeed maybe there isn’t. Maybe he is just a disturbed kid. Maybe the black and white sequences we see are just his gothic fantasies rather than flashbacks to his ancient past… it’s impossible to say for sure. Romero makes sure of that. Make up your own mind. Stick around through the end credits for a final haunting note that has nothing whatsoever to do with vampires, and everything to do with how many people live today… it’s all about loneliness. It’s all about connecting. It’s all about what happens when we don’t, or can’t.

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