Scary Old Stuff: Vampyr
The Wolfman comes out this week, and it might be scary and it might not, but one thing I can tell you is – No, wait. Let me back up for a second. Or a decade. Or two.
My second girlfriend thought of herself as a philosopher and she would regularly stymie me with references to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Camus. I decided I’d start going to the double-features at the U.C. Theater in Berkeley and counter all her fancy philosophical know-how by becoming genuine cinephile. On my first try I fell asleep in the middle of Battleship Potemkin.
When I woke up a few hours later the legendary Hong Kong martial arts epic Swordsman II had just started. Some kind of Theater usher had let me sleep right on through the Russian revolution and wake up just as the beautiful Brigitte Lin was raising her magic sword and flying through the bamboo. The U.C. Theater was cool like that.
So flash forward into the 21st Century, and I’ve cobbled together this list of life-changing movies, and I’ve made a pact with the cinematic Gods that I’m gonna watch each and every one, and by gum if it isn’t changing my life. It’s not just the quality of these old movies, I never doubted that they could be of quality. The thing that gets me is how vital, how immediate, and how visceral these old movies can be.
Case in point: `1932’s Vampyr.
Even if you haven’t checked out any of these movies up until now, check out this one. It’s a little over an hour. And don’t watch it in little pieces on YouTube. You need continuity on this one. You’ve got Netflix right? Right. Watch it on Instant Steaming, or if you really want to feel the print, get the DVD. Before you start watching, turn out all the lights. Go on. It’s just some movie from 1932, right? And it’s vampires, for heaven’s sake. They look like Robert Pattinson and get their ass kicked by Ethan Hawke. Don’t be a wuss. Wait till you’re alone. Turn out the lights. Let it roll. Yes, the gothic font is silly. Let it go. Just watch. In the dark. Alone. Before you read another word.
See what I mean? That’s terror done right. And so many influences down the line. A little Exorcist in there, a little bit of The Shining, some Amityville Horror, and a lot of David Lynch at his most menacing.
That thing you’re feeling in your chest, that unsettling tingle, that’s Carl Theodor Dryer making you feel that way. Dryer is one of the all-time masters at using image, composition and pacing to dredge up emotional content. In the case of Vampyr, that means filling every frame with so much mystery and menace that we become conditioned to feel as if everything we see in the movie has some sinister hidden meaning. The movie holds within it, such a profound core of emotional discomfort that it’s still dangerous after all these years.
If you want to see the same powerful tools used to a completely different effect, looking at religion and faith rather than fear and death, check out Dreyer’s 1928 movie The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s challenging at times, but it’s worth the experience to let Dreyer take you that deep into the human spirit.
If you like scary movies, go check out The Wolfman this weekend, if for nothing else than to watch Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins chew up the scenery. Literally. I bet it’ll be fun. But I also bet it’ll most often go for the gross-out. In Vampyr, Dreyer aimed for the very core of terror.
Next week? We’ll lighten up for Valentine’s Day with a little song and a dance from the master of psychedelic art deco choreography.