A Kind of Dreaming – Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

The German Expressionist film movement of the late 1900’s radically altered the landscape of European silent cinema, and paved the way for inventive directors such as FW Murnau,  GW Pabst and Fritz Lang.  Expressionism’s formal stylings – painted sets, flat lighting, angular cinematography – rejected any attempt at naturalism, and instead made a virtue of stylization.

These breakthroughs naturally coloured the cinema of other countries, as other film-makers began to experiment with form. Danish Director Carl T Dreyer’s 1927 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is notable for its use of a non-professional actor in the lead role, its reliance on close-ups, very little use of intertitles for dialogue and a near empty frame. The German set designer Herman Warm, who had worked on the Expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) also designed Joan of Arc’s bare minimalist set, the style of which owed more to theatre production than to cinema.

In 1932, Dreyer followed the ascetic minimalism of Joan of Arc with an altogether different film; Vampyr is his adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla (from the collection In a Glass Darkly) and is an early entry in the vampire film genre. Here, Dreyer indulges his passion for experimentation, producing an atmospheric fable which leaned heavily on Expressionist motifs, and Surrealist imagery.

Vampyr’s plot, such as it is, follows the protagonist Allan Grey as he arrives at a remote French village. Grey stays the night at a local inn, but his attempts at sleep are hampered by an encroaching  sense of unease, as well as by a nocturnal visitor who inexplicably states “She must not die” before vanishing. The visitor leaves a parcel bearing a note that it is only to be opened in the event of his death. This sets Grey on a mission to discover who the mysterious visitor is. Later, we discover that the parcel contains a book on vampires, including mention of one who has wreaked havoc on the very village Grey has found himself in.

Dreyer’s vampire story differs from, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  In Stoker’s story the central character was the embodiment of evil who was pitted against a morally “good” adversary with whom he battles.  Vampyr largely eschews the idea of a bad or evil central figure and instead deals with the notion of evil as an unseen destructive force which reaches into the lives of ordinary, law-abiding people.  In Dreyer’s film a young village girl has been “possessed” by the vampire figure, and it is her struggle to live and to refute evil which Dreyer foregrounds.

Vampyr uses techniques borrowed from German Expressionism and the French Surrealist Movement to tell its tale. Dreyer had spent time in Paris with the Surrealists, and at times Vampyr’s narrative reflects the non-linear, dream-like patterns favoured by them. Indeed a key central segment of the film has Allan Grey “step out” of his body, and see himself placed inside a coffin being carried to a graveyard. The image of Grey’s face under the glass of the coffin lid, with the sky and trees reflected in it, is one of the most visually powerful in the film.

As with The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Vampyr’s set designs feature cramped, uneven interiors, shadows, narrow hallways and darkened rooms. The character’s inner turmoil and emotions are expressed in the films visual style; we see as Grey sees. Often we don’t know if what he is seeing is real or imagined; here Dreyer’s subjective style gives the film a psychological realism which was unusual for its time.

Vampyr was not a commercially successful film. Bad press and indifferent audience reaction sent Dreyer into a physical and mental tailspin, and it was some time before he returned to film-making. Much as the influence of Caligari and the Surrealist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou (1928) can be seen in Vampyr, the film’s own influence can be seen in the work of later generations of experimental film-makers such as David Lynch.

The screening I attended featured a live musical score from Steven Severin, ex-bassist with 70s goth-progenitors Siouxse and the Banshees. Severin’s evocative electronic score greatly complimented the eerie visuals of Dreyer’s film, breathing new life into a still slightly perplexing film; now rightly regarded as a classic of its kind.

More information on Carl Dreyer and Vampyr can be found here and here.

Watch a film clip here

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Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)

Ben Wheatley shot his first feature, Down Terrace (2009) in just eight days and on a ridiculously modest budget somewhere in the region of £6,000 (the actors deferred their wages until the film eventually made some money back).  He used real locations, such as the house of a friend’s father, who he also had star in the film. The film went on to win the Raindance Award at the British Independent Film Awards in 2009, and Wheatley was awarded a Best Newcomer prize by the Evening Standard British Film Awards in 2010.

With Kill List, the budget has improved but Wheatley’s modus operandi has remained much the same. He still uses real, albeit fairly anonymous locations; ring roads, petrol stations, lock-ups, suburban housing estates – these are the areas his desultory characters inhabit. But lest you think Wheatley is yet another British director fashioning some kind of social-realist aesthetic, think again – his filmic territory is more like Ken Loach meets John Carpenter.

Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) are two best friends and former Army buddies. Jay is back in England following his last mission in Iraq, and is having real problems settling back into suburban married life with his Swedish-born wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring) and their son Sam (Harry Simpson). In an attempt to help his mate out, and get him back into the world of work, Gal proposes Jay joins him in some lucrative work, as contract killers for the shady Client (Struan Rodger). The Client provides the two pals with their “kill list” and a suitcase full of money, and soon the pair are on the road, glad to be working together again.

What makes Kill List so unsettling is that Wheatley grounds these characters in everyday reality. During a fraught dinner party with Gal and new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), for example, talk turns to the recession, to lack of money, and we understand that these people are just trying to get by like everyone else. Fiona works in Human Resources, essentially firing people for a living. Both Jay and Gal have their problems-and Jay in particular seems to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – but nothing that a nice bit of work can’t sort out. The difference is that Jay and Gal kill people for a living. What’s more unsettling is that Jay’s wife Shel knows what he does, is complicit in his actions, and nags him about not working; as if he were simply an unemployed plumber going through a bad stretch.

What starts as a realist drama about two hitmen going about their business then suddenly takes some very unexpected turns. Gal’s girlfriend Fiona carves a Hex-style emblem into the back of Jay and Shel’s bathroom mirror. Is she putting a spell on the house, on Jay and Shel? Later, she turns up unexpectedly at Shel’s when Jay and Gal are away working, and tells Shel she’s waiting, but waiting for what? Meanwhile, on the road, Jay is becoming increasingly unhinged, as his previous professionalism on the job gives way to out-and-out violence and brutality.

Wheatley shifts the focus of the film, in its 2nd half, to a very British type of horror.  Calling to mind Brit-Horror classic The Wicker Man, Jay and Gal encounter a weird late-night torch-lit procession going on down in the woods; and when they erroneously intervene, they are chased by the mask wearing mob, complete with flaming torches and knifes. The film then proceeds to a bizarre and unsettling finale that leaves more questions than answers. Wheatley doesn’t favour exposition, so don’t expect much in the way of explanation or a tidy resolution to the story. Like the spooky soundscapes and jerky jump-cuts he employs throughout, this is a film-maker who is out to undermine and wrong foot the audience’s expectations at every turn, but who never talks down to them.

You are left to make of Kill List what you will. I can’t say that I fully understood what the hell was going on by the end of the film, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterwards.

Kill List is on general release now.

You can watch the trailer here

The Skin I live In (La piel que habito) Pedro Almodovar, 2011

For his 18th feature film, Pedro Almodovar moves away from the female-centric stories of his previous films, into a more ramped-up, melodramatic tale comprising elements of Science-Fiction and Grand Guignol horror.

The Skin I Live In features one-time Almodovar stalwart, Antonio Banderas as Dr Robert Ledgard, a brilliant but unhinged plastic surgeon who is developing a new type of skin; made through a process of cloning and combining animal (in this case pig hide) and human skin to form a new hybrid. Ledgard is operating on a beautiful female captive, Vera (Elena Anaya) who may or may not be his wife, badly burned years earlier in a horrific car crash.

It’s difficult to discuss the film’s storyline without giving away major plot spoilers; suffice it to say that the far-fetched fantastical story, luckily, takes 2nd place to the film’s ravishing mise-en-scene. Other reviewers have criticised the film’s lack of emotional depth, but to me this is a (almost literally) clinical film all about surface sheen and superficiality. Almodovar attempts some psychological depth by showing Vera passing the time reading some very tasteful literature (Alice Munroe for one), and recreating works by Louise Bourgeois on the walls of her room; but, apart from being utilised to state the obvious (the Bourgeois work referenced is Femmes Maison– concerning a woman trapped in/by a house) there isn’t much room to delve deeper into these additions.

The rather cluttered storyline doesn’t detract, however, from Almodovar’s images, which are the best things about the film. Shots are beautifully composed;cool and elegant, with a gorgeous colour palette washing over the high contrast images. The score too, by Almodovar regular Alberto Iglesias, serves to add to the sense of heightened glamour.  In storyline and look, the film strongly references Hitchcock’s Vertigo, while the “mad doctor” scenario calls to mind Georges Franju’s classic Eyes Without A Face, which I’ve written about before. In Banderas too, Almodovar has a charismatic leading man; turning in a strong, assured performance while perfectly fitting the bill as the handsome, suave, yet creepy Dr Ledgard.

There is also a fitting contrast between Banderas’ middle-aged, lined features; those of Marilia (Marisa Paredes), his older, aged housekeeper and Vera’s smooth, blemish-free skin. In her we see no sign of the mortality which afflicts the other two, as her super-skin is resistant to ageing, heat, and even mosquito bites. This is still an Almodovar film though and he manages to imbue the film with his familiar themes – sexuality, voyeurism, transsexualism and transgender issues all play a part.

Like Doctor Frankenstein’s man-made Creature, this particular monster may be lacking a heart, but it is only ever concerned with surface appearance anyway.  While it may mark something of a departure for Almodovar, he reminds us of his own earlier films too; as elements of both Bad Education and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! are reflected in the super-shiny new skin of this one.

The Skin I Live In is on general release.

You can watch the trailer here

les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1954)

Regarded as a classic of the Horror/Suspense genre, Les Diaboliques would not be considered a horror movie by today’s standards, but it still packs a suspenseful punch. Digitally restored by the BFI, this classic Noir is set in a boy’s boarding school presided over by the cruel, misogynistic headmaster Monsieur Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) and his nervous wife Christina (Vera Clouzot). Also under the same roof is his mistress Nicole, played by Simone Signoret.  Both wife and mistress have had enough of being humiliated and abused by the creepy Delassales and plot to murder him; but after they’ve disposed of him the body goes missing, and so begins a cat and mouse game of suspense that ends in a shock plot-twist.

Some years later another great Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, was apparently inspired by the pared-down minimalism of Les Diaboliques for his most famous suspense movie, Psycho. Hitchcock also tried, unsuccessfully, to acquire the film rights before Clouzot; and instead settled on another story by the same crime-writing duo, Boileau-Narcejac, which he filmed as Vertigo. There are certainly Hitchcockian touches in Les Diaboliques – the light/dark duality of the wife/mistress, the everyday objects, such as a swimming pool or bathtub, imbued with silent menace; and the cold, clinical, impassive point of view.

This is a story with numerous tiers of cruelty and cruel behaviour layered one on top of  the other. None of the characters escape the hateful, bitter atmosphere and all are either bullied or bullying in their own respective ways. The plot will keep you guessing right up to the end, and bathtime might not seem so appealing after watching this.

(Les Diaboliques is showing exclusively at the IFI until May 5th)

Eyes Without A Face (Georges Franju, 1960)

This is a film I’ve wanted to see for a long time, as not only is it thought of as a classic of the Horror Genre, but it now holds an esteemed place in auteurist cinema, as marking the moment when Georges Franju first truly earned the auteurist tag.  However, on its release in 1960, Eyes Without A Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage)  was pretty much villified and garnered widespread bad reviews. Its status only came to be re-evaluated in the mid 1980s, after a number of re-releases in France and the United Kingdom saw it reach new audiences and critics began to re-appraise Franju’s work; placing it in a new, more auteurist, context.

The plot concerns a brilliant surgeon, Professor Genessier, who devotes himself to trying to replace the face of his daughter Christiane, after she is horribly disfigured in a car accident. Christiane’s face is hidden behind a ghostly white mask, which she must wear at all times, as she is kept virtual prisoner in her father’s home. Genessier is helped by his assistant Louise (Alida Valli), whose face he successfully transplanted after she too was disfigured in the same accident. His remorse is compounded by the fact that he was the driver, so he works tirelessly to restore Christiane’s beautiful face and thus give her back her life. The problem is that he needs “donors”; and so must resort to sending Louise out to pick up suitable young women to lure back to his basement operating theatre.

Eyes Without A Face is notable for several striking scenes; such as a visit to a morgue early in the story, Christiane wandering the rooms of her father’s house (where portraits of her as she was are kept covered) and the final sequence; as  the Professor’s horrifying work is undone, we see Christiane emerging from the hidden operating theatre flanked by the dogs her father kept for experimenting on, as a white dove sits on her shoulder.

Associated as it is with the Horror genre and Grand Guignol, this is a film that goes beyond those limiting tags, and repays repeated viewings.  Franju serves up a multi-faceted shocker that is not easy to pin down, and is still an odd but essential film.