The credits read that this film is freely based on a poem by Sheridan Le Fanu, but I’m guessing that “freely” here means “lip service” though in all honesty, the film is itself a dark and moody tone poem, rather than a full blown vampire movie in the traditional sense. Le Fanu wrote the Carmilla stories which Hammer used as a basis for The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil, so he may well have invented the lesbian vampire sub genre, but there’s none of that here, thank you very much. Oh deary me, no. Audiences would have to wait another four years until Universal quaint now, but daringly overt at the time Dracula's Daughter for their sapphyc nibber of the night.
Okay, let’s start at the beginning – it’s a German picture, filmed on location in France. It was originally released in May, 1932 with German, French and English soundtracks – though the dialogue is pretty sparse. It’s actually so sparse that the film is practically silent (hence no quote to kick the review off in the usual style). Over the years, the French and English soundtracks have been lost, and all that remains is the German cut, which has been released on disc with subtitles.
So, we know it’s a classic, it’s hailed as a nightmarish masterpiece, but what’s it all about? Well, there’s a traveller named Julian West who has an obsession with the occult and vampirism. He travels to an inn, and as he’s about to settle down to sleep, the innkeeper wanders in, with seemingly no sense of boundaries and leaves a parcel to be opened upon his death, like you do.
Naturally, he dies soon afterward, later that same evening, actually, leaving the traveller with the weird cast of characters; his two daughters, one sickly the other a kind of prototype Goth, a weird doctor who bears a stunning resemblance to Albert Einstein, and an old hag.
Right, sparse story even shorter, the gist of it all is that the unwell daughter is the victim of vampirism, hence her listlessness. But the fact that there’s a vampire at large shouldn’t be much of a surprise because the film’s title is, on the face of it, a pretty glaring spoiler.
So, given the pretty simplistic plot, why should you watch it and why is it in the Shocktober list?
Well, it’s the execution.
Simply put, the script is just a means of conveying us from one aspect of this grim visual poem to another. Forget the acting, it’s histrionic and so far over the top as to be in a low orbit. The script may well be inferior to anything that Universal were putting on screens in 1932, but the cinematography and skilful visual effects are both whimsical at times, surprising at others and downright disturbing at other points.
Of course, there’s the shot of a farmer walking by, with a scythe on his shoulder who looks like Death, giving a grim foreboding of things to come – that’s the most famous scene and the one you’ll have seen if you’ve ever read a book that mentioned this movie. Actually, come to think of it – it’s up there at the top of the page. You’ll see the shadows that detach themselves and start dancing around, which is both cleverly done and is the whimsical touch I was mentioning, that’s the light hearted beginning of West’s nightmare. As the film proceeds, there are shots of the ghost of a one legged soldier, including one scene clearly showing his badly disfigured face - and that's no make-up. It was, in actual fact a real war wounded survivor – and his scene is unsettling to say the least. There’s also what I’m certain is the first cinema scene of a person being buried alive, with some shots showing the victim’s point of view.
In these sequences, which represent the bulk of the movie – the film is far more experimental cinematically speaking than anything Universal had attempted – with the exception perhaps of James Whale’s work.
What really lets the film down though are two things – the captioning on the DVD is absurdly fast, and you literally have to speed read the English subtitles. As some of the exposition of the plot and the vampire’s identity is hinted at during some passages read from a book, it can be hell trying to make out what’s happening and what people are reacting to.
The other thing is even worse.
The whole film is shot in broad daylight, even though we’re repeatedly told it’s night. This notion also being reinforced with shots of people holding up lit candles. I mean, Universal’s Dracula had plenty of night scenes shot in the dark. Why not this?
My suspension of disbelief can easily stretch to vampire and monsters – but don’t try and tell me that night is day.
Check it out for yourself on Amazon.
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Next film up - The Raven (1935)
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