Monday, April 23, 2012

Human Vampires

Up until that particular 50-or-so minute mark in Feuillade's Les Vampires, the eponymous gang is claimed to be a menacing band of no-gooders who behead patrol policemen, poison stage performers, create fraudulent identities and commit a double-homicide before making one of the most spectacular (yet graceful escapes) in the history of cinema (The Great Vampire's touchdown via-a-pipe at the end of 'The Severed Head'; shot in a single, unbroken take, is as fluid as Assayas's post-post-modern imagining eight decades later). Suddenly, however, in the third chapter, 'The Red Codebook', an intertitle announces revelry in the Vampires' camp - which then bleeds into the ensuing shot: Dr. Nox and Irma Vep scheme in the foreground with squinty eyes and grouchy noses as the great criminal-club transforms into a sea of casual normalness ('see, they aren't even wearing latex masks and suits!') behind them. Abruptly, Feuillade severs the film that will follow the intertitle from the film that precedes it - the vampires will no longer be a menace, but petty criminals who do what they do because they must - not because they want to. It sets up a grand narrative idea as well - Guerande will now wage an equal war, not an impossible one - as his humiliating defeat at the end of the first chapter would have had us believe.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tourneur Quandaries


Unlike other directors of suspense, Tourneur’s suspense wasn’t supposed to excite, because if Hitchcock’s special talent was to not reveal the secret until ‘just the right moment’, Tourneur’s was to identify the moment, exceed it by an half an hour or some and make the revelation profoundly meaningless – in some films, such curious disregard for the pleasures of suspense (while simultaneously high regard for human tragedy) could result in tediously conducted dreary masterpieces; in others, it merely resulted in dreary films; conspiracy theories that weren’t conspiratorial enough. Night of the Demon (1957) is Tourneur’s best for entirely different reasons – for one, it is emblematic of his work as a film director with the usual permeating feeling of casual enigma (except for one ‘thrilling’ sequence where the lead protagonist is chased through the forest by special effects), an exotic location, a lead protagonist obliged to choose between the spectacular and the rational, the bizarre and the scientific, the supernatural and the logical (much like a Tim Burton film; but therein, Burton himself makes the choice, and chooses always, as results show, the former). This dilemma is not one of science itself, it is not about the progress of mankind, but one of morality; a grander choice – one between compassion and steady cynicism, or one between the fundamental human ability to believe and the other ability to reject it. Much like Cat People (1942), it bases itself in/on a completely disconcerting myth – the speculation of a peculiar paranormal existence; in this, the titular demon, in that, a cult of human-feline tribals; but unlike Cat People, Night of the Demon has a stronger moral quandary that it embroils its viewers in – the moral choice is not of the lead character alone anymore, but also of the viewer – for the protagonist that we may conventionally identify with is a cocky, cynical, unbelieving, cold, scientific bastard – while our villain is a passionate, enigmatic, committed young occult-enthusiast. The question is – who do we side with? Quite obviously, the studio found the question too difficult, too burdensome: ‘how can a B-film raise a doubt so profound and pertinent’, they would have asked, and in a savior-act, decided to answer it for the audience by inserting a insipid end that not only undoes the great work done by the director in the preceding hour and a half in building up an unsolvable myth, but also declares loudly who the hero and the villain of the film are. Severed from this end and perhaps from the entire climax in the train, Night of the Demon is Tourneur’s beautiful masterpiece.