Sunday, April 24, 2011

Vampyre – review

Director: Bruce G Hallenbeck

Release date: 1990

Contains spoilers

Let me ask you a question. How would you feel if you knew that someone had try to remake Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr? I suppose the answer to that would pretty much depend on whether you had seen Vampyr and whether Dreyer’s dreamlike masterwork of cinema had impacted you.

That said, if you haven’t and it hadn’t then this will not make a huge amount of sense as a film. If you have, you’d be forgiven for asking what the Hell was the filmmaker thinking and why did he throw in a(n almost modest) homage to Jess Franco for no adequately explored reason.

The film, however, begins with a conceit by entering into the background of characters within the film, which Dreyer never drew so explicitly. Starting – with a voice over by actor Randy Scott Rolzer, who will play the adult role – with the background to David Gray (played as a child by Davin Lageroos). Note that the original name changes depending on edition, either David Grey or Allen Gray – this is a mismatch of the two. Do we actually need this background? Probably not as Dreyer gave us a very lightly sketched explanation of the man that had an, almost Lovecraftian, academic occult background. Hallenbeck, however, makes him a child vampire slayer.

killing sister
We see a man (Dale Keenan) and a woman (Susan Hallenbeck) both staked – we assume his parents (an assumption the credits confirm), whilst the film infers that he killed them – he himself wears a cross and carries a stake. He lies in a field but a young girl with blood at her mouth approaches him, his sister (Melanie Van Allen). She attacks him and he fights her off. He wanders the woods and finds her in her coffin, with a struggle he stakes her.

vampire wench
A man chops wood by a lake; the surface bubbles and a busty wench emerges from the waters. She approaches him seductively and he accepts her advances, tumbling to the floor with her and losing his neck veins to her ministrations. Gray interrupts her feeding, holding the large wooden cross out, but she slaps it away. He manages to retrieve it as she attacks him and pierces her chest with it. Presumably it is because it was a cross used as a stake that caused her rapid decomposition. Thus we have Gray’s background but we also have an error and an assumption with regard the original film lore. Firstly wood stakes are used, whereas in the original they are specifically iron stakes. Secondly, in Dreyer’s film, whilst the book of lore they use mentions sin and funereal rites, the contemporary aspect of the film carries with it little in the way of religious trapping – this reimagining adds a stronger religious element.

Cathy Seyler as Marguerite Chopin
Welcome to the village of Courtempierre – though we are still offering character backgrounds as of yet. Dr Dreyer (John Brent) – and did they really need to give the doctor a name, never mind Dreyer’s name – is speaking and talking of suicides becoming the restless dead. He tells this to Marguerite Chopin (Cathy Seyler) and offers her poison to begin a new adventure, as life as not enough. A couple of things to note; the original Marguerite was an old woman – that is something that is startling within the movie, she is a crone – this makes her an attractive young woman. Also the legend of Marguerite dates (with a little basic math) to around 1745-1750. Now Dreyer’s film offers no date for the primary action but it is clear that the doctor was not contemporaneous to the mortal Marguerite. However, when it comes to new background material, we haven’t actually finished yet.

blowing the lid of the tomb
The doctor takes a young child to the cemetery as a gift for Marguerite, in an impressive awakening scene the top of her tomb blows off. The locals are revolting. Two children have gone missing and the blame is placed at the doctor’s door. They go to find him but only find his servant Justin (James Flynn). They chop his leg off but then bind it so that he can live forever with his sin – remember the peg-legged shadow soldier in Dreryer’s film? We didn’t need a background for him either. Gray then turns up and plants a cross that will keep out the evil for a while; it must be allowed to grow before it can be destroyed, or some such b/s.

killing Leone
Cut ten years forward and the film does, to a degree, now follow Dreyer’s film. Gray actually astrally projects twice – one such moment drawing him back to the village. There seems little point in the local landowner giving Gray a book – the lore of vampires – and saying 'she must live' as Gray was due to return and is an experienced vampire hunter. Scenes, such as the shadow dance, are replaced with solid people and the attempt to get Leone (Joan Crosby) to commit suicide is replaced with her being actually attacked by Marguerite.

donning the mask
There are other moments within the story that are new. There is a veritable plague of vampires as well, it seems, as devil worshippers. We get a woman (Rene Balsam) donning a vampire skull mask and slitting her own throat, dedicating herself to the beast – we even get a couple of shots of said demon. Does it add to what was originally made – not really and it adds a different atmosphere. As for the main plot lifted from the original, I don’t want to go into that here.

a modest shot of the girl in cape
I mentioned a Franco moment and there is a girl vampire (Elizabeth Carstens) wandering around, bare-breasted in a cape. I said, at the head of the review, that it was almost modest, and this girl wears French knickers unlike Lina Romay in the Female Vampire, who clearly inspired the scene. This caped girl also rides horses and appears in Gray’s astral vision. The fangs she sports seem to be like something from a Rollin’s film, but I am sure that is coincidence.

vampires with goblet
Now, what I haven’t mentioned yet is the actual filmcraft and acting – only how this has messed around with Dreyer’s vision. The acting is, to a man, blooming awful. Wooden deliveries abound and you just wouldn’t hold up a single performance as good. That said, the look of some of the cast worked well – Dreyer himself cast roles with non-actors simply because their look fit the role, but then he never gave most of those actors major speaking parts.

staking Marguerite
The film’s photography is poor but, to be fair, this was clearly done on a micro budget and there were some iconic vampiric shots on occasion. These shots seemed to be more accidental, or subconsciously selected, than anything else and I guess if you study a classic piece of cinema some of it is bound to rub off. Now having said that, don’t search out the vhs of this expected to be overwhelmed by iconic shots – they are occasional and don’t make up for the rest of the film.

I’d like to think that any criticism I have of this is down to its poor quality, rather than a pretentious defence of Dreyer’s work. Clearly one cannot help but compare, when a film is a remake, and had any of the changes been an improvement (in actuality or theoretically) I’d have said so. Trying to remake the work of one of cinema’s greats is never going to be a wise move unless you too are a true auteur. 2 out of 10 – sheer audacity has to get a couple of marks. The imdb page is here.

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