Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Vampyr: A Soap Opera – review

Directors: Nigel Finch & Robert Chevara

Release date: 1992

Contains spoilers

Whilst this – being an opera – might have a limited appeal (though I am perhaps doing it a disservice there) it does seem a shame that the BBC would not release it on DVD. Indeed it is only available on vhs.

However, for the collector of vampire movies, at the very least, this is a necessary piece that has a pre-Stoker pedigree. You see, the modern vampire craze was far from the first. Back in 1819 when Polidori published the Vampyre it caused quite a reaction, adaptations of it appeared in book form, plays and operas. One of the operatic adaptations was by Heinrich Marschner, entitled Der Vampyr and premiered on 29th March 1828.

Ripley circa 1793
Cut forward to 1992 and the opera was modernised, given an English Libretto by Charles Hart and produced (by Janet Street-Porter) for the BBC. It begins in 1793 with Ripley (Omar Ebrahim) – as Ruthven has been renamed – running from men with dogs. Rotten floorboards give way and he falls unconscious to, what seems suspiciously like, a sewer. He is frozen and the ice entombs him until work is done in the area and the ice melts some 200 years later.

Ripley revived
We have to, of course, ignore the fact that, if it was a sewer, the London sewers were not built until the mid-Nineteenth Century. Further we have to ignore the fact that it is unlikely he would have frozen as depicted, and more than unlikely that the ice would have remained frozen until the late twentieth century – after all (as was pointed out to me) this is a world were people communicate through singing. Though perhaps the ice appeared through infernal interference? We’ll get back to that soon…

We are introduced to the characters at the head of the opera and a handy voice-over (narrated by Robert Stephens) tells us the ins and outs. As well as Ripley, whose natural predator instincts (and shady practices) have seen him rise to the top of the business world, we have Alex (Philip Salmon), a young man caught in the whirlwind of Ripley’s vice and also the secret lover of Miranda Davenant (Fiona O’Neill) a society heiress. Her father, Sir Hugo (Richard Van Allen), however is bankrupt.

high priestess
It appears that Damian Hirst is all the rage amongst Satanists, as a group of high powered individuals gather for a Satanic Rite and his work is on display. The Satanic High-Priestess (Winston) informs Ripley that his revival comes with a cost – he must kill three women in three days. This price for revival caused me to wonder, if Satan was behind his revival was he also behind his icy tomb? Several other things struck me, firstly the three days only works (given the events that follow) if you take strict 24 hour periods from when he was told and secondly that, for a vampire, killing three women shouldn’t be too difficult. However the main thing that struck me was the infernal relationship he has with Satan.

Whilst Ruthven is immoral there is no religious aspect to Polidori’s story. This would seem to add a post-Stoker lilt to proceedings as Ripley also says, much later, that vampires are a separate race blessed with immortality at the cost of imbibing blood and relinquishing their souls. Marschner’s opera had a similar scene though it was a witches’ Sabbath that Ruthven attended and it was a Vampire Master who passes on the stricture of his survival and the three had to be virgins – not a stipulation here.

stylised feeding
The first to die is a fashion model called Ginny (Willemijn van Gent) who has argued with her lover, Berkeley (Roberto Salvatori). Ripley seduces her, giving her a ride home and coming in for coffee. The attack that we see is very stylised – just Ripley’s head and a whole lot of blood – though we see the mutilated corpse the next day after the police arrive. Their arrival has Ripley fleeing through a window and being knocked down by a hit and run driver. He drags himself home.

Alex with the injured Ripley
In the Ginny scene we also discover that Ripley can transform into a wolf – again more post-Stoker than pre (despite the close connection between werewolf and vampire in the early nineteenth century lore). However it is when Alex arrives at Ripley’s flat we see the most Polidori orientated aspect. Ripley has Alex drag him to the window so he can “bathe my wounds in healing moonlight”. The healing aspect of the moon was in Polidori's story but didn't really survive past Varney the Vampire as a genre staple. Having done as he was asked Alex goes to his lover Miranda – who Ripley spies on from afar. Alex is late and so they argue but quickly make-up.

a future son-in-law
Miranda’s father goes to Ripley – whom he believes is the Earl of Marsden, a pseudonym the vampire also used in Polidori’s original. Ripley offers to save the man’s finances if he makes Miranda marry Ripley. In the morning Sir Hugo goes to tell Miranda the news (that she is getting married the next day) and discovers her in bed with Alex – whom he kicks out. At a subsequent engagement party Alex discovers that Marsden and Ripley are one and the same.

Ripley has a stag night with George (Colenton Freeman), his chauffeur, and picks up a woman named Emma (Sally-Anne Shepherdson). He goes to get his own car – having told George to stay and drink (George tried it on with Emma to no avail). Alex confronts him and Ripley admits that he is a vampire and that Alex has a choice – let him kill Miranda or die as well. This is a move away from demanding that Aubrey (the same character of Alex) maintains an oath and fits the modern setting much more. Ripley picks Emma up and subsequently kills her.

Colenton Freeman as George
Alex is leaving the city but decides that he cannot allow Miranda to die and turns around. George went to pick up the car, which Ripley left at a car wash, just as the workers find Emma’s body in the boot. He too rushes to save Miranda and gets to the church first but no-one will listen to him and the police take him away. The wedding party are in the church when Alex arrives.

head of a wolf
Of course this means that Ripley can enter a church (and, incidentally, he has been walking in sunlight all the way through the story) thus it seems a little odd when Alex brandishes a cross – this strikes me as being used simply to meet a genre expectation. We actually see Ripley develop the head of a wolf in this scene and then, presumably because his plans have been frustrated, lightning strikes the church. This causes the cross to fall from where it is suspended and it stakes the vampire (who subsequently vanishes, presumably dragged to Hell). The church doesn’t go unused however; Sir Hugo insists that Alex and Miranda marry.

classic post-Stoker pose
I am no expert in opera – it is not my favourite medium generally. I did find myself watching in rapt facination, having not seen this for many years. The libretto seemed strange in places, the modern English words almost alien when sung in the operatic style. This again may just be my own ignorance when it comes to the medium. However, this was important for the bringing of an early vampire story (no matter that it was modernised) to a modern audience and for bringing that story’s opera form to a mass audience. There is some marvellous imagery used (and some bits that fall flat, Ginny has a row of the ugliest plastic dolls on her bed and a random appearance of synchronised swimmers was odd to say the very least). It deserves a DVD release. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.



Christine said...

I am in no expert in opera either, but this sounds interesting libretto-wise - both the original version and this modernisation!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hiyah Christine, I don't know if anyone still performs the original... it is a possibility. However it is worth tracking down the vhs of this, if only for its novelty/genre interest

Anonymous said...

The movie is present on youtube,divided in different parts.
Il vampirologo che ride

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers anon