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Children of the Night: The Vampire Film at 90

4 Mar

Ninety years ago today, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu was premiered in the Marmorsaal of the British Zoological Gardens. Nosferatu was an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel Dracula and Stoker’s widow successfully sued for copyright infringement and almost in succeeded in destroying all prints of the film. For all intents and purposes, Nosferatu was the first vampire film and over the years hundreds more have followed in its wake.

Lord Ruthven, one of the first vampire figures in English literature, was based on the genuine Lord Byron – one of the leading figures of the Romantic movement and one of the original ‘bad boys’ of popular culture. As one of his lovers described him, Lord Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know” and that is the typical stencil of a vampire – physically attractive but not someone you’d necessarily want to settle down with. Indeed, the earliest cinematic vampires weren’t of the supernatural variety we know today but simply ‘vamps’ – now more commonly known as femme fatales.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Vampire provided the title for the 1915 film A Fool There Was which featured Theda Bara as a femme fatale who seduces a Wall Street lawyer. The film earned Bara the nickname “The Vamp” and rocketed her to stardom, spawning imitators across the globe including Pola Negri who became one of the most popular stars of the silent era and is today known for her many collaborations with Ernst Lubitsch.

With Murnau’s influential Nosferatu, the cinematic vampire evolved into the blood-sucking supernatural beings that we all know today but they retain the metaphor for repressed or forbidden desire that was present in the femme fatale figure. However, the femme fatale figure didn’t disappear from the screens, in fact they didn’t reach their peak until the 40s and 50s where they were a staple of American film noir.

Over the past ninety years an immeasurable number have been produced with varying quality and Count Dracula himself has the distinction of being the most portrayed fictional character in cinema with over 170 film appearances. So, which of these are bloody good?

Nosferatu

In F.W. Murnau’s landmark vampire film, Max Schreck gives a chilling, career-defining performance as Count Orlok (aka the eponymous Nosferatu) – a nobleman, analogous to Dracula, who has a certain hunger for human blood. Orlok has the distinction of being one of the most unattractive vampires in cinema, with a positively repulsive appearance. Rather than the more elegant vampires that followed, Orlok was animalistic and conveyed what giving in to your carnal desires would reduce you to – Murnau’s way of conveying that sex or the lust for it was the source of evil. Nosferatu‘s eerie, gothic atmosphere retains it’s haunting qualities nine decades on and remains one of the defining masterpieces of the silent era. It’s also worth watching Werner Herzog’s stylish remake/adaptation, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, which features Klaus Kinski in the title role.

Dracula

Of all his 170 films, Count Dracula has never been quite as iconic as in this 1931 Universal adaptation where he’s played by Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. Lugosi’s performance is generally regarded as the definitive portrayal of the Count with his authoritative screen presence and measured pacing (not to mention his accent) proving a match for the character’s cadaverous nature. Perhaps only Christopher Lee has come close to matching Lugosi in the role but the latter remains the best.

Vampyr

After directing what is a prime candidate for the greatest film of all time, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer turned his hand to sound – and horror. With a disorientating atmosphere that straddles the border between reality and nightmare, Vampyr features a series of mysterious – and possibly supernatural – killings and stars Julian West as a traveller who has to come to terms that there may be more than just heaven and earth. Deemed by Alfred Hitchcock as “the only film worth watching…twice”, Dreyer’s unsettling tale is now regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time.

Black Sunday

Possibly the finest film to come out of the Italian horror renaissance, Mario Bava’s debut feature Black Sunday concerns a vampire/witch who was put to death by her brother, only to return 200 years later to feast on her descendants. With impressive expressionist visuals and a unsettling and genuinely creepy narrative, Bava’s atmospheric horror is one of the finest vampire film.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders mixes together fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland and vampire folklore into a horror/fantasy where the supernatural becomes surrealistic. Jaroslava Schallerová plays the titular Valerie who’s nascent sexuality puts her in danger from the town’s adult inhabitants who are all after her “magic earrings”. One of the most radical depictions of vampires in cinema, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a mindbending Czech tour de force.

Near Dark

Recent Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow directed this vampire film in the late 80s. A tale of a farm boy who reluctantly becomes a member of a family of vampires when a girl he meets turns out to be of the undead variety, Near Dark is a western/horror hybrid that has an almost poetic poignancy and features some beautiful cinematography. It remains the finest example of vampiric romance (I’m looking at you Twilight!).

Cronos

The feature film debut of Guillermo del Toro, Cronos is a chilly spin on the vampire tale. It concerns Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) who stumbles upon an extraordinary alchemic device in his antique shop that holds the promise of immortality but dying millionaire Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) is aware of the device’s existence and will do anything to get his hands on it. Like the vast majority of vampire films, Cronos focuses on forbidden desire but rather than concerning itself with sexuality, it’s an atmospheric exploration on the perils on immortality. Who wants to live forever?

Let the Right One In

One of the standout films of the noughties, Let the Right One In is set in an eerie, atmospheric Stockholm suburb in the 80s where a 12-year-old outcast, Oskar, befriends his enigmatic neighbour, Eli, who turns out to be a vampire. Tomas Alfredson reinvented the vampire film with this touching realist fantasy where the vampirism is symbolic of a boy’s pent-up rage at his tormentors and loneliness.

And The Oscar Didn’t Go To…

26 Feb

83 years since they began, the Academy Awards still hold an aura of awe and amazement that’s normally reserved for big sporting events. This is almost impossible to comprehend because this is the organisation that deemed such drivel classics as CrashDriving Miss Daisy and Cimarron to be the finest cinema had to offer in their respective years. You can’t please everyone but the Academy rarely pleases anyone. Here’s my expose of the Oscar’s 5 most glaring errors…

Citizen Kane

Nominations: 9

Won: 1

Best Picture Winner: How Green Was My Valley?

To be fair to the Academy, they gave Citizen Kane a very impressive 9 nominations. However, for what is now regarded as the greatest film of all time to only win in one category – Best Writing (Original Screenplay) – seems quite shocking. The results were undoubtedly down to the influence exerted by William Randolph Hearst, the powerful media mogul who the film was based on. He tried desperately to suppress the film and thankfully failed. It’s very telling that almost all contemporary references to Hearst are in the context of the film. As The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance put it – “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. Valance, one of the best Westerns ever made, was also snubbed at the Oscars but in the year that brought us Lawrence of Arabia and not, in the case of Kane, How Green Was My Valley?it’s much easier to get your head around. The only reason to watch the incredibly dated How Green Was My Valley? is to see what bested Citizen Kane.

The Third Man

Nominations: 3 

Won: 1

Best Picture Winner: All About Eve

Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, Carol Reed’s The Third Man was slightly ignored at the 23rd Academy Awards. It garnered three nominations – Best Director, Best Black and White Cinematography and Best Film Editing – but Best Picture eluded it Harry Lime-style. This would have been easier to tolerate if Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard scooped the top gong but the award went to the admittedly iconic but still rather average All About Eve. The Third Man has a connection with the aforementioned Citizen Kane in the form of Orson Welles who gave one of his greatest performances as Harry Lime. To the eternal shame of the Academy, Welles, despite being one of the best actors and directors to ever have walked the promenades of Hollywood, was continually snubbed  and won only two Oscars – one for writing Citizen Kane and the other a non-competitive honorary award.

Singin’ in the Rain

Nominations: 2

Won: 0

Best Picture Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth

In the year when Cecil B DeMille’s lavishly overindulgent The Greatest Show on Earth took home Best Picture, now-perennial favourite Singin’ in the Rain was shockingly overlooked. The Greatest Show on Earth is now recognised as one of the worst Best Picture winners though Steven Spielberg does credit it with inspiring him to become a filmmaker. Everyone else has since recognised The Greatest Show on Earth for the bad egg it is and Singin’ in the Rain as a toe-tapping, feel-good musical masterpiece – the balance of the world has been restored.

Vertigo

Nominations: 2

Won: 0

Best Picture Winner: Gigi

Of the four films directed by Alfred Hitchcock to be nominated for Best Picture, only Rebecca won (and arguably, it should have been The Great Dictator). The Academy didn’t nominate what are today recognised as his greatest works – Psycho, Rear Window, The Birds and Vertigo – for Best Picture and in a year where the nominees were universally poor, Vertigo didn’t just deserve a nomination – it deserved to win.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Nominations: 4

Won: 1

Best Picture Winner: Oliver!

In 1969, the Academy wanted to apologise to Carol Reed for the injustice that was the lack of a Best Picture nomination for The Third Man so they gave his musical based on the Broadway musical based on the Charles Dickens classic Oliver! a whopping 11 nominations – of which it won 6. Now, I have a bit of a soft spot for Oliver! and it’s musical numbers are so toe-tapping that your buttocks will not even notice the 153 minute duration but the film that should have unequivocally swept the board is Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey. They did give Kubrick what would be his only Oscar – for Best Visual Effects – but that doesn’t seem quite enough for a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Shockingly, they didn’t give his earlier masterpiece, Paths of Glory, any nominations either.

 

The Sound of Silence

27 Nov

We’ve come a long way in the 84 years since the success of The Jazz Singer signalled that the silent era was at an end. 1927 doesn’t seem that long ago but the world was a very different place before World War II, television, computers and the internet and to some people silent films now seem like museum pieces, works that belong more in a film studies class than in cinemas or on our television place. Who can blame them? Few people alive today were around during the heyday of the silent picture and there are few, if any, schools that teach the works of Chaplin and Murnau like they teach the works of Twain and Fitzgerald.

However, during the next few weeks Hugo and The Artist will be released into cinemas. In Hugo, the latest film from Martin Scorsese, the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès and Harold Lloyd are just some of the filmmakers paid tribute to in what amounts to a eulogy to film. However, Hugo is kitted out with all the modern tools of filmmaking – synchronised sound, colour and even 3D while The Artist – silent, black and white – is something that you wouldn’t expect to find in a cinema in 2011 and certainly not being touted as a potential Oscar winner.

Is silent film making a comeback? Not likely. But here are just some of the silent films that everyone should see…

Intolerance

Griffith’s earlier infamous epic The Birth of a Nation is something of a textbook in filmmaking but the blatantly racist content makes for uncomfortable viewing. In response to the backlash, Griffith made Intolerance as an apology and what an apology it was. The most expensive film made at that point (1916), it examines the effects of prejudice through four parallel storylines, each in a different historical era. The gargantuan sets and running time would be impressive for a film made today so to make it in 1916 must have been a monumental undertaking.

Sunrise

F.W. Murnau already had a pretty successful film career in Germany where he made Nosferatu (which is still one of the best vampire films), The Last Laugh and Faust but it wasn’t until he was invited to America that he cemented his position as one of the greatest directors ever. Voted one of the best films ever made in a critics poll in 2002, Sunrise is a fable of a film, telling the story of a married man who is tempted by a femme fatale from the city to murder his wife. In Sunrise the cinematic craft reached as near to perfection as it ever could. Murnau melded together terrific performances and beautiful cinematography give rise to a lyrical, romantic and emotionally uplifting experience. Sadly, he only directed three more films, one of which is lost – he was killed in a car crash in 1931, just four years after Sunrise was released.

Battleship Potemkin

The greatest propaganda film of all time, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin has such visceral impact that, 90 years on, it still makes you feel compelled to take up arms. A dramatised account of the mutiny on board the Battleship Potemkin that took place in 1905, Eisenstein used the film to experiment with his idea on film editing. Back in 1925, editing was used in a way that tried to make the film seem smooth and seamless but Eisenstein used editing to try and enhance the emotional impact in the viewer. Needless to say that this was as revolutionary as the film’s message itself. The Odessa Steps sequence, where this is most apparent, is one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history for both its power and its shocking images.

The General

Buster Keaton’s The General follows Johnny Gray who gets turned down when he volunteers for the Confederates due to being more useful as an engineer. He has two loves: The General, his train and Annabelle, who believes he’s a coward and when they’re both stolen by Northern spies, Johnny must try and get them back. Featuring stunts that are nothing short of spectacular, the film is hilarious and wildly entertaining in equal measure.

Metropolis

The granddaddy of the entire sci-fi genre, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was the most expensive silent film ever made. In the city of Metropolis, the workers are segregated from the ruling class and live underground, maintaining the machinery that keeps the city above functioning. The son of Metropolis’ founder, Freder, falls in love with a worker named Maria but behind the scenes a mad scientist is orchestrating a conflict between the two classes. Fritz Lang’s epic masterpiece is a gripping film with mesmerising visuals that have influenced every science-fiction film since and still hold up today. If someone were to ask me what their first silent film should be, I only need to utter one word: Metropolis.

City Lights

Charles “Charlie” Chaplin was the most famous film star in the silent era and even today his iconic character, the Little Tramp, is deeply embedded in popular culture. Chaplin was the greatest talent to ever grace the medium of cinema – acting in, directing, producing, writing, editing and composing the music for many of his films. Containing Chaplin’s timeless slapstick humour, City Lights shows the Little Tramp as he falls in love with a blind flower girl and culminates in one of the most moving scenes in cinema.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer basically invented the close up in his historical masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. A dramatisation of the trial of Joan of Arc using the actual historical transcripts, Dreyer filmed the majority of the film as facial close ups with haunting results. Renée Falconetti’s performance as Joan of Arc has been called the finest performance ever recorded on film and her facial expressions are filled with raw emotions that movingly convey Joan’s ordeal. Thrilling, heart-wrenching and horrifying – The Passion of Joan of Arc is reference material for demonstrating the power of film as a medium.

Safety Last!

In his time, Harold Lloyd was considered one of silent film’s three comedy geniuses along with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Today, the shot of Lloyd hanging from the hand of a clock is one of the most famous from cinema history but compared to Keaton and Chaplin, hardly anyone has seen Lloyd’s films themselves. The clock shot comes from Lloyd’s best film, Safety Last!, which follows a boy from the country who ventures out to the city to gain some financial security in order to marry his sweetheart. He gets a job as a clerk in a department store and sends her gifts he can’t really afford leading to her joining him in the city. The film’s thrilling conclusion sees him climbing a 12-storey building where it appears that Lloyd himself could have been in mortal danger – there were no special effects in 1923. Lloyd may not have the reputation that Keaton and Chaplin do but he is a sort of bridge between their two styles – the stunts and the melodrama – and Safety Last! in particular is just as entertaining as Keaton and Chaplin at their peak.

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