There is a moment in Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, a relatively unimportant throw-away couple of seconds, where the nominal hero of the story catches sight of a couple of shadows — shadows with no physical source to cast them — creeping across a field. Either because of the particularly old source material or the specific intention of the director, the film is grainy, hazy, gauzy. And it captures perfectly the prevailing atmosphere of Vampyr and why I love the film so dearly. Ostensibly a vampire film — thus the title — the hypnotic power of the movie flows not from the more visceral terror of bloodsuckers and murderers, but rather it comes from a much vaguer, ethereal place, something to do with ancient beings glimpsed from the corner of the eye, from unnerving mysterious powers, from murky forests and glens that are at once idyllic and unnerving. There is something very pagan about Vampyr that places it, for me, not so much among the famous works of vampire film and fiction, but alongside stories like Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and films like The Wicker Man.
His names are legion. His name is Legion. But maybe you know him as Scratch, or Ol’ Gooseberry. The Devil himself, if you will. He’s one of the most compelling literary figures of all time, despite, I imagine, the original intentions of the writers of the Old Testament. Poet John Milton turned the Devil into a brash anti-hero in Paradise Lost, and for many intellectuals who see religious fundamentalism as stifling to the pursuit of knowledge, he’s remained in his cool cat corner with lots of stories being written about him. Something about Lucifer lends to storytelling. It’s his unpredictability, perhaps. You never know if you’re getting the wretched evil Devil or the suave rebellious one. Or the witty one or the comedy one. With Jesus, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: Jesus. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Jesus — Christian or not, you can admire some crazy dude from Nazareth who took on both the Romans and the religious establishment, told people not to submit to a corrupt priesthood, and then said you shouldn’t always be bashing each others’ heads in. But where do you go from there? That’s why the only people who ever tried to write the further adventures of Christ were the Mormons.
In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
Let me be up front: the whole reason I wanted to watch this film in the first place was because the poster art featured a torch-wielding naked woman riding atop a tormented centaur. I knew it was probable nothing like that would ever occur in the actual movie (and I wasn’t disappointed in my pre-disappointment), but I felt like I owed it to the movie never the less to give it a look see. And while it doesn’t feature a naked woman galloping about on a centaur, it still turned out to be, to my old eyes, a surprisingly effective and creepy, if somewhat modest, tale of Satanism and revenge from beyond the grave.
Whenever I’m confronted with a film that lies immeasurably far beyond the boundaries of anything that could be considered competent, coherent, or even sane filmmaking, I find some superficial comfort in attributing said work to the hands and mind of a deranged lunatic possessed of an inner monologue so warped that agreed upon notions of human logic and morality seem to melt entirely away. This is, perhaps, a defense mechanism, as I encounter such films — as you might guess — pretty frequently. I suppose there is some solace in thinking that these films sprung from the fertile yet twisted mind of a madman, that surely there is no way a sane and normal human could have produced such alarmingly, hilariously awful material. To be hyperbolic about it, I suppose it is much the same as when we reflect upon the infamous dictators of our past as monsters rather than men, soothing our horror somewhat by casting them as some otherworldly ghouls rather than what they were and still continue to be: mere men, who remind us that the capacity of man to commit acts of near unimaginable cruelty is vast. They are not monsters. They are us, and but for a chance of fate — being born in another time, another place, or having a minutely different chemical balance in the brain — any of us could have been them.
So let’s say, just for the sake of argument, you’re a vampire. Not one of those post-Anne Rice vampires with the leather trenchcoat and the bad poetry and the ill-advised appreciation of Pigface. No, I’m talking about one of those older, more distinguished vampires. Not too bad, huh? I mean, yeah, there are drawbacks. I, for one, would miss the sun and a good day’s surfing. On the other hand, if you were to become any monster, a vampire would be pretty sweet. A mummy or Frankenstein monster would be the worst, of course. Mummies only have one outfit, and they have to spend the entire afterlife shambling around in pursuit of some dame who looks like some other dame the mummy loved back in ancient Egypt, and then a dude in a tweed jacket sets you on fire. And Frankenstein monsters have to do pretty much the same thing in terms of shambling, though at the very least they get to smoke cigars and drink wine. As for werewolves — sure, cool power, but you have no control over it, it only happens once a month, you can’t remember anything afterward, and your clothes are constantly getting ruined by your transformations.