Friday, August 31, 2018

The Vampire Symphony – review

Director: Jeff Scott

Release date: 2013

Contains spoilers

The association of Dracula with symphonies is old indeed, stretching back to 1922 and Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Like the classic picture this independent effort is a (mostly) silent movie, which relies on imagery and soundtrack for impact. I found the film cut into its three chapters (entitled Jonathan, Lucy and Mina). A complete running time on IMDb suggests it has also been cut into a feature, I assume by stitching the three parts in order.

The film itself is a fairly accurate re-telling of Dracula, with important differences that I will explore (so the spoiler warning stands) and I intend to be rather picky with some of the criticism – not out of pettiness but because I was greatly impressed generally and therefore, even though some of these criticisms were unavoidable, I intend to highlight so that any future effort can be even better.

Harker in the hotel
We begin with Lucy (Dakotah Stymiest) looking out to sea from a cliff, we get flashes of a face (belonging to Dracula (Joel Ross)) and almost subliminal flashes including that of Lucy lying bloodied and dead on a bed. She is joined by Mina (Mercedes Peters) and both girls look genuinely anxious. We find out later that Mina and Lucy are cousins in this. Cutting to candles in the dark and, at a table, Jonathan Harker (Nathan McFarlane) reviews papers. A caption informs us that it is 1910 – lifting the setting out of the Victorian era but still period (I’ll return to this) – and the black room allows us to imagine the surroundings of a set that budget would likely not allow for.

Harker taking his leave of Mina
Captions highlight parts of Jonathan’s papers and we see he is to meet Prince Vlad Dracula – the choice tying this version of Dracula to Vlad Țepeș. He has a picture of Mina with him and remembers their parting. These scenes did seem to invoke Hutter leaving Elen in Nosferatu. I’ll come back to this but whilst the house they use (Mina and Lucy live in the same house with Lucy’s Mother (Suzanne Short)) might seem the part there are little tell-tale modernisms that sneak through. For instance, the light switch in the parting of Jonathan and Mina scene. Also the shirt and trousers Jonathan wears in a picnic scene during this montage feel modern.

Harker locked in his room
Jonathan’s journey to the castle is shown in shorthand and inside they have done their best to try and disguise the sets they are using, but the staircase is at odds with the stock castle interior footage (I assume it is all stock footage, anyway, but it does fit in very well on a photography level, just mismatches in architectural style with the scenes they shot on set). We get the shaving scene, which could have done with a basin of water to make it feel authentic, Dracula psychically causing the mirror to break rather than throwing it. Jonathan is eventually locked in a room and a stronger criticism is that the room (which comes across as a room in a house) is very different in look to when we see it at night with the brides (Beth McRae, Abi Reinhart & Shelly Smith).

the brides
I assume the brides come to Jonathan and it is a fantastically drawn scene. They approach slowly, at first appearing to be two until the third is revealed behind the others. The filmmakers used lighting and lack of it to great effect and the brides surround him, ready for their meal when Dracula intervenes. However, the brides are not simply cowed, they return and return for him, trying to reach past Dracula until they are given a baby – and they are given an actual baby not a sack with the insinuation of a baby inside. Their feeding is bloody.

Bride slayed
I’ll wrap up the critique of part one by revealing a couple of plot changes that are stylistically and narrative important. Firstly, Jonathan kills the brides. This is important as Dracula will not return to Transylvania in this re-imagining, so the crew of light will not pursue and therefore Van Helsing (Dennis Hunt) will not destroy them. It’s also important to note that Jonathan clearly knows how to kill a vampire. Can I tell you how much I love the staking scenes in this film? Visceral, bloody and realistically drawn. The staking scenes make watching this worthwhile on their own. The other change is that, following this, Jonathan dies (presumably of thirst or starvation) holding Mina’s picture.

speech bubble
Part two starts in Whitby and uses the advances of Lucy's three suitors as comedy and the music reflects this. We get all three suitors from the novel – Quincy (Shawn Nickerson) brings flowers, Jack (Jason Boyle) chocolates and Arthur (Sheldon Garland) an engagement ring. One change with the suitors is that Arthur is a Lord at this point. When each of the suitors enters we get one of the two pieces of dialogue – though not spoken. As each one comes in a speech bubble appears with their names and animated hearts and it is silly and not becoming of the rest of the film. Be that as it may Dracula also comes to the house also (note it is daytime, rightly fitting in with the book’s attitude to sunlight) and Lucy is fascinated but Arthur intervenes and sends him away. As there is no direct narrative explanation we are left wondering – Dracula had taken possession of Mina’s picture for a while in the castle, we assume therefore it is her he is hunting and so why he distracts himself with Lucy is unknown.

Quincy, Jack and speaker
Another critical point at this stage is around the anachronistic elements within the house. I assume they moved forward to 1910 to suggest that light bulbs might be fitting in the locations and generally they do well to avoid modern trappings that wouldn’t belong. It is likely they just hoped no-one would spot the smoke alarm but there are things they forgot to move. So when Lucy goes to bed after Vlad’s visit she has an electric clock radio by the bed – to be fair this was missing in later scenes and so would seem to be filmed by accident without realising it was there. Also missed was what appeared to be a modern speaker on a cabinet behind Jack and Quincy. My reason for pointing this out is so the flimmakers will, perhaps, be able to avoid such things in future efforts.

Lucy's death
So Lucy becomes a victim and it is Mina who writes to Van Helsing and here we get our other (spoken) dialogue as she narrates her letter. We discover that Seward has given her transfusions (from Arthur, Mrs Westenra and Mina). She will, of course, eventually die but she is survived by her mother leading to an emotional scene at the funeral, which was well done. She then returns but it appears that Dracula actively summons her from the grave in a nicely realised scene. We do get Bloofer lady aspects and this brings me to Lucy’s staking.

Lucy staked
It was realised very differently from the book. The coffin opened and empty, Lucy walks into the crypt with her newest infant victim and is pushed back to the coffin by the cross. However, when Van Helsing goes to stake her, Arthur intervenes and has to be pulled away from him. The staking itself is as good as that of the brides (albeit that her collar opens and closes between ‘being staked Lucy’ and ‘Lucy in repose’). Quincy vomits during the staking and Arthur goes to touch the cheek of a suddenly unbloodied corpse – however I do not think this is a mistake as the scene jumps between ‘Lucy in repose’ and ‘Lucy violated’ as though Arthur only sees the good and not the carnage.

Dracula and Mina
Which takes us to the part entitled Mina. She becomes the victim of course and what I noticed in both cases was the attacks were filmed in a dark space, rather than shown in their room, and then we cut to the victims sat up alone in bed – as though the attacks were in some other-space. However, we have an issue. Mina is being attacked but we have no Jonathan to bridge the knowledge gap of the identity of the vampire and where the vampire might be. By killing Jonathan, the filmmakers had to create a mechanism for the Crew of Light to be able to find the monster. Suddenly we cut to Renfield (Ian Estey) and he becomes our narrative mechanism. We see Seward take some notes and as well as covering the fact that Renfield is eating flies and spiders he notes the madman's use of the word vampyr. Dracula kills the lunatic but we don’t know why (other than he did it in the book and we need a mechanism) and Renfield writes Dracul in blood before dying.

deus ex machina
We next see the Crew of Light going to the property acquired in England. We still have a problem though. Dracula was announced at the Westenra House – if Mina didn’t realise this was the same man who Jonathan had left to do business with (as much as she was worried about him) we can’t believe that she would suddenly realise and know where the property was (though it isn’t directly suggested this happened, but it was the logical implication). Also, whilst Renfield is a psychic barometer for vampiric activity in the book, it occurs throughout the novel’s England sections. Renfield’s sudden very brief inclusion and the use of him as the narrative mechanism is a deus ex machina that was frankly sloppy.

As I’ve spoilt everything else I will say that there is a twist with Dracula’s staking that was fantastic and, other than that, the staking was as viscerally good as the other vampire slayings in the previous chapters. So, no chase back to Transylvania but the inclusion of all the suitors and the general structure/focal characters – Jonathan, Lucy, Mina – made this feel quite loyal to the novel. Some of the changes were well done – Jonathan dying in Transylvania felt right in this re-telling – but other bits not so much – the aftermath of Jonathan’s death on the story narrative was, as just discussed, not brilliantly handled.

Mercedes Peters as Mina
But the power of this is in the imagery and soundscape. The music works well, creating themes that weave through the film and nothing feels out of place when it comes to that sound. There is even a really nicely used moment of silence adding to one of the Lucy scenes. The photography is well done and some of the imagery is done very well. I was impressed particularly by the expressiveness shown by Mercedes Peters. The coquettishness displayed as Lucy might have been misplaced if it were not for the fact that the suitor scene was played lightly with an air of comedy (though it was Peters’ reactions to Lucy that helped cement that) but Stymiest was good as Lucy fell ill. I liked the use of portraiture and close-up, especially around Dracula, and some of the camera angles were very interesting – though some seemed born out of necessity (hiding the parts of sets that should remain unseen). I will mention that Jonathan failing to break a window with a tray was probably down to repeatedly hitting the central frame not the glass –  this seemed silly but the source was probably a need to not break the glass in whoever’s house they were in. However, many of the issues were born of budgetary constraint and, despite painting themselves into a narrative corner (and avoidable anachronisms), I was impressed. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Unknown said...

I very much enjoyed this interpretation. It was a little hard to ignore a lot of the modern decor and objects in some scenes, but the acting was never over-the-top, and the music to me was more of a narrator, setting mood, tone and place (despite the comedic tilt of the suitor's scene). Relying more on visual action can be a hazardous ploy in any production, even dance, but the cast pull it off and never really distract from the overall story. I think it would be interesting to see more of classical literature filmed in this style, although there would be serious limitations for longer stories.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi, I Can't disagree and part of my reasoning for pulling out some of the anachronisms was because they were there but with a hope that if the team pulled something else together they might avid many of them.

The music did indeed narrate :)

jsphoto said...

Hi. I’m Jeff Scott, the creator and director of The Vampire Symphony.
First of all, I want to say how pleased I am that all of you have taken the time to look at our project and thank you Taliesin for that very detailed and positive review of the film.
You are correct in so many assumptions about the budgetary constrictions of this project. This was not a low budget film – this was a “NO” budget film. Despite the various plot holes and set design flaws that you were able to easily spot, I am quite honored that you were entertained and said some very positive things about the music and visuals.
Just a little background on the project. The idea came to me as I watched a local theatre company do a modern adaptation of Dracula on stage. Being such a fan of the book, I was front row center, but the play was so big on dialogue and so low in theatrics, I actually found myself a bot bored. It was then that I decided that if I ever did a stage version of Dracula, that it would be big on theatrics and low on dialogue. The I thought, ‘what about zero dialogue’ and the idea was born. The first attempt at this was a high school stage version which we called Dracula Symphony. It went well, but I knew that I needed to do it as a film to really bring across the visuals that I pictured.
I was incredibly inspired by the 1979 Werner Herzog film and the 1992 Coppola film, so there were visuals in those films that I tried to pay homage to, as opposed to recreating them. There are also Kubrick and Hitchcock moments as well.

It was about three years after the school play was finished that I decided to try it as a film. I had all the costumes and props in storage, so it was a matter of finding a cast. The two young women, Lucy and Mina were students in the high school production and I had asked them if they wanted to be involved in the film. They were quite excited. The rest of the cast are friends from both local theatre and the musical community.

It was a nine-month journey with filming starting in February of 2013 and our first screening in October of the same year. It was fun … and so much work. But in the end it was worth it.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Jeff, thank you Firstly for the series but also for taking the time to offer such a detailed background. Really appreciate it