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.

Friday, 27 February 2009

DANGER: DIABOLIK & JUDEX

We'll be posting up our programme notes from now on here for your delectation. But since the new programmme is still in the making, I thought I'd wet your appetites with a taste of the kind of thing you can expect from us.

I should point out, these are programme notes not essays - small explosions of ennthusiasm, intended to convey why we find the films exciting and hoping to kindle a fire of enthusiasm and excitement that might make you want to come along and see them for yourself. On the whole, the films we show are films we all love - though here and there we have disagreements - but all of us will fight our corners passionately.

If you're not a resident of Exeter or the surrounding towns, try double billing these films for yourself... for the most part they're available on DVD.

DANGER: DIABOLIK & JUDEX
Dir: Mario Bava & Georges Franju

Two distinctly European takes on the usually US dominated world of comic book/pulp novel adaptations. American movies in this genre tend to focus on the hero in a cape. Europe does things a little different. In the tradition of Fu Manchu, Raffles and Arsene Lupin, we bring you Diabolik and Judex…



Some people say that it is ‘Kitsch’. Some say it’s ‘Camp’. But the truth is, DANGER: DIABOLIK is neither. Camp and Kitsch suggest a certain ironic distance. They imply that if it’s cool, or if it’s funny, it is somehow in spite of itself; somehow unintentional. Anyone who has had the intense pleasure of watching a movie made by Mario Bava will tell you that if there’s one thing that is absolutely certain about his films it’s that he knew what he was doing. The man was a genius with a camera, able to create incredible movies on a pittance because he understood light and film and cameras. DANGER: DIABOLIK is not ‘Camp’ or ‘Kitsch’. But it is, perhaps, the definitive expression of ‘Pop’ sensibilities on screen.

BARBARELLA (made around the same time for vastly more money, and to vastly inferior result) looks like a pantomime by comparison. Big flat fakey stage sets that Roger Vadim shoots like a stage play; it is completely lacking in the kind of cinematic verve and technique that fills every frame of DANGER: DIABOLIK. Crash zooms, whip pans, spinning cameras, speeded up motion, incredible use of trick photography and miniatures (just watch the wide shot as Diabolik drives into his lair, it’s 99% painted onto glass, and if I hadn’t just told you, you’d never know)… the way he uses frames within the film frame to emulate the multi panel pages of a comic book (DIABOLIK is based on a popular Italian comic strip)… it is a joyous film, that revels in the possibilities of cinema and has as much fun as is possible with the material.

Does it take itself seriously?

Of course not. But that’s why it is so much fun. The film is so colourful you might want to wear shades. So sexy and cool, that even Connery as Bond doesn’t get a look in. And Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is to die for. It’s wafer thin of course, no one is pretending otherwise, but it still manages to make more than it’s fair share of anti-establishment cracks at the Police and Government. It’s a glorious film. Pure entertainment. Legend has it (and it’s been confirmed) that Bava – so used to making miracles onscreen with no budget– was incapable of spending money. With $3,000,000 at his disposal, he made the film for $400,000 and handed back the rest. Producer Dino De Laurentis offered him the chance to make a sequel with the money he had left. But Bava hadn’t been entirely happy with the amount of pressure that had come with all the money: all the second-guessing and looking over his shoulder. A naturally shy man (a craftsman not an artist he might have said, but there are those of us who’d beg to differ) Bava retreated to the world of low budget movies where he was left alone to conjure magic on the screen with nothing but imagination. We’ll be showing more of Bava in the future, you can be sure. This is not his best, it’s just a taster. And it’s so much damn fun we didn’t think that it could fail. Like as not some of you will fall in love with this film and want to do as we have done… pass it on to others. I’m not sure there’s any higher praise than that.

Enjoy.



JUDEX, in the meantime is a French take on the Super Villain/Masked Avenger, which started way back in the twenties as a serial made by the legendary Louis Feuillade, sort of in response to his earlier FANTOMAS and LES VAMPIRES. FANTOMAS especially (based on the pulp novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, and much beloved of the surrealists) was focussed entirely on the heinous crimes of it’s amoral protagonist, an almost supernaturally slippery, and omnipresent villain, who stole and murdered his way through five films. JUDEX was made, somewhat in response to the lack of moral centre in the earlier works. The character of Judex being more of an avenger; he may do questionable things, but only to those who deserved it, in the name of righting wrongs.

In 1963 after the success of LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (EYES WITHOUT A FACE), Georges Franju wanted to remake FANTOMAS but couldn’t get the rights. Instead, he made JUDEX. But in the process, to make him more interesting, he made him stranger. Made the story and the details more magical. Not least by casting stage illusionist Channing Pollock to play the title part.

Franju’s film takes all the classic pulp elements, and adds lyricism and beauty, poetry and absurdity. The images sing, as they do in all his films.

Franju remains perhaps the most under appreciated of France’s great filmmakers. His part in French film history consistently underplayed. He co-founded the Cinematheque Francaise with Henri Langlois, but it’s Langlois’ name which is most mentioned, Franju often being missed out altogether. Best known for LES YEUX (and rightly so, since it is a masterpiece) he nonetheless made many other films, most of which remain unavailable even in his homeland. That JUDEX has found it’s way back into the world is something of a minor miracle. I can only hope it leads the way in seeing more of Franju’s films dug out from the vaults. He brought poetry and lyricism to generic storylines, and made the grotesque beautiful. LES YEUX SANS VISAGE will be showing soon, but in the mean time, enjoy this slightly lighter slice of the work of George Franju. It doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a lot of fun. And the masked ball that introduces Judex, once seen, will never leave your mind.

Hidden Cinema


This blog is about to change a bit.

No more will it be only me, Neil Snowdon, musing and pondering and waffling about whatever's in his head. Soon, others will come... others who share my tastes and passions... others who write and read and have heads full of too many thoughts. Otheres who are trying to make the world (or Exeter at least) a more interesting, imaginative place... let me tell you about one of the things we've been doing.

The Hidden Cinema is a cinema club that shows double bills every other Sunday in the basement of The Hourglass - one of the finest drinking establishments in Exeter (indeed, the South West of England). It started as a result of mine and David Barker's contention that there weren't enough decent films being shown locally, and that none of the local venues were willing to do anything about it.

Exeter needed something new. Something different. I was just about to close BRAZIL, the dvd rental shop I had been running for about a year in the hope of giving Exeter an alternative to Blockbuster. And then the bottom fell out of the economy and we were forced to close. But David and I had gotten to know each other. And David being a good bit more sociable than I, had found a possible location for our plan... and so we put it into action.

And thus, the Hidden Cinema was born. And so far it has flourished.

Very quickly we brought on Jez Winship (a Brazil regular with a taste for fine films and fine music) who made an immediate impression with his enthusiasm for our cause, and his inspired suggestion of putting on a double bill of Michael Reeves' THE SORCERERS and Ingmar Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRY'S... which will be showing pretty soon.

Anyway, I thought this might be a good place to house some of the writing that we've done for the programmes thus far, as well as being a place to advertise our presence.

We're part of a widespread grass-roots movement of guerilla film screening going on. A lot of it in the sticks where multiplexes fear to tread, and in cities where people are beginning to feel starved of variety, oddity and eclecticism.

The next screening will be on Sunday 8th March: WITCHFINDER GENERAL & BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW we hope we see you there...