Jul 22 2008

DVD of the Week – ‘Vampyr’ – July 22, 2008

An early sound film shot with a distinctive and evocative silent film aesthetic, Vampyr is a horror movie as tone poem. Dialogue is sparse and large blocks of text (either intertitles or pages from a book of vampire lore) provide the exposition. It’s an eerily abstract film of vague motivations and ethereal imagery (exaggerated by the worn state of the source prints) from the opening scenes.

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For whom does the bell toll in "Vampyr"?

Our hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), is a vaguely interested in the supernatural, according the titles, but he walks into this cursed village like a dazed innocent whose walking tour (or perhaps butterfly hunt? he’s hoisting a large net over his shoulder) of the familiar countryside takes him into unfamiliar terrain, a cursed village that is, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the world. A villager with a scythe rings a bell on a misty lake as he arrives, already conjuring a feeling of death and portents of supernatural things to come.

Gray discovers shadows without bodies and a tormented young woman with vague wounds treated by an unnerving doctor who only visits at night, and embarks on a spirit journey to watch his own funeral (from both within and without his casket simultaneously). Julian West (the pseudonym of Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, who also financed the film) is a blank, inexpressive actor, more convincing as a creepy corpse than a living hero, but his languid expression makes his passive protagonist just another part of the dreamy world.

A definitive version of Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr is a holy grail of cinema. Dreyer prepared separate German, French and English versions of the film, and even though he shot them without sound and post-synched all the dialogue, he had his cast perform their dialogue in all three languages for greater verisimilitude in the dubbing. The negative (and variant takes of dialogue scenes) and original soundtrack recordings are long lost and the surviving prints are slightly different from one another (not just because of language differences, but censorship, damage, and even Dreyer’s own recutting after the disastrous premiere) and incomplete, not to mention well worn and scratched and faded.

Criterion’s new edition, mastered from a restoration by Martin Koerber, is the closest we have to definitive. It’s in German (almost nothing exists of the original English version) and, though the image is soft and worn because of the state of existing prints, it looks better than I’ve ever seen it. It sounds better too. The digital cleaning of the soundtrack removes so much of the hiss that I remember from 16mm prints and old video copies. It also makes the sound effects and dialogue crisper (which has the unintended effect of drawing more attention to the fact that it was post-synched).

I review the release in my weekly DVD column on MSN here.

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David Gray inside looking out

Also notable this week is another foray into the supernatural, this one much more modern: Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter, an eco-thriller by way of a ghost story, set in the isolation of an arctic station.

The atmosphere evokes John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” a team surrounded by a frozen desert where storms whip up out of nowhere and something seemingly alien is out there trying to get to them. “The corpses of animals and plants from millions of years ago,” is how environmental scientist James LeGros describes oil. He may also have pegged the source of the angry spirits of the Earth rising to stop the destruction. Ron Perlman (“Hellboy” himself, sans make-up) is excellent as the company man invested in the culture of oil but also dedicated to protecting all the people on his team as they come under assault for simply drift into madness. It’s Fessenden’s biggest and most visually evocative production to date, and the marriage of environmentalist and animist themes that makes for a resonant – and very timely – horror film.

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"The Last Winter"

I review the DVD here.

Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:

Movies: Heartbeat Detector with Mathieu Amalric and the American indie Turn the River:

Famke Janssen, a good actress too often cast in flimsy roles, plays a small-time gambler who gets by hustling poker and pool games in upstate New York. In her periodic jaunts to NYC, she checks in on her tough-love mentor (a cheerfully grizzled Rip Torn in fine form) and secretly sees her son Gulley (Jaymie Dornan), who she abandoned at birth. Now she plots to scrape together enough money to get Gulley away from his angry alcoholic dad (Matt Ross) and oppressive grandmother (Lois Smith). Chris Eigeman, who co-starred with Janssen in The Treatment, turns writer and director with this film. If the script is less than polished, he shows good instincts for character and atmosphere in his directorial debut, and Janssen is convincingly weather beaten and frayed as the tough cookie who has been bounced around by life and risks it all to save her son.

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The cast of "Spaced"

TV: The BBC natural history docuseries Earth: The Biography (a geologically-oriented look at the origins of the planet itself), the whimsical Robot Chicken: Star Wars™ from creators Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, and 1999 British cult sitcom Spaced: The Complete Series:

Before Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, director Edgar Wright and actor/writer Simon Pegg collaborated with actress/writer Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson) on this 1999 cult BBC sitcom about a couple of slackers, Daisy (Hynes) and Tim (Pegg), who meet at a pub and decide to pose as a couple to get a great flat. They’re not exactly the odd couple, but they are definitely odd roommates, a pair of goofball slackers with aspirations of professionalism that are largely extinguished by killing time over TV, videogames, banter and pints at the local pub, usually in the company of Tim’s gun-toting best buddy (Nick Frost) or Daisy’s dizzy pal Twist (Katy Carmichael). This is funny, funny stuff. The lively humor is crammed with pop culture references and playful gags and executed with an inventive sense of style (for TV, anyway) and terrific energy. You can find the inspiration for Shaun of the Dead in the opening minutes of “Episode 3.”

Special Releases: Bela Tarr’s acclaimed 1994 intimate epic Satantango, the André Téchiné 4-Film Collector’s Edition (featuring Wild Reeds and My Favorite Season), and Clint Eastwood’s Bird:

… arguably the best cinematic jazz biography ever made. Forest Whitaker took home the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance as the driven musician who changed the sound of jazz with his volcanic saxophone solos. Off stage he’s gentle and modest, with Whitaker bringing a lazy charisma to a shambling grace to his performance, but when he plays it’s like he’s transported, his mind on another plane and his fingers dancing across the keys in a fevered rush to keep up with his imagination. Diane Venora co-stars as Chan, the jazz aficionado who became Parker’s wife. Eastwood directs from a jumpy, fragmented script that leaps around Parker’s life, and he delivers a darkly textured cinematic flight that almost approaches the uninhibited passion of Parker’s solos.

Blu-ray: Stephen Sommers’ remake of The Mummy (and its sequel and spin-off):

Leave it to Stephen Sommers to create an action-movie out of the sleepiest of monster movie icons. Under his direction, “The Mummy” becomes a comic escapade through a yesteryear Egypt right out of the Hollywood adventure movies of old but with a modern sensibility. Brendan Fraser is a bit callow as the wise-guy soldier of fortune who teams up with a cute librarian (Rachel Weisz) and her reckless gambler brother (John Hannah), and the script is almost too tongue-in-cheek for its own good. But Sommers’ thrill a minute cliffhanger is a tribute, a parody, and a high energy period adventure all in one, and the mummy Imhotep (incarnated by Arnold Vosloo when he’s not an elaborate digital effect) is a veritable walking plague.

The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

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Forrest Whitaker in "Bird"

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