Thursday, 6 July 2017

VARIETE (1925)

The silent German film classic Varieté is a torrid, melodramatic tale of family betrayal, infidelity, sexual obsession and moral intrigue that was released to great acclaim and success in 1925. It takes place against a big city backdrop of ribald and often Rabelaisian film sounds and sights encompassing the worlds of carnival, vaudeville, theatrical entertainment and stage performance - mostly set in the teeming metropolis that was modern Berlin of the 1920s, at the height of the Weimar Republic. The film is one of the high-points of the German post-expressionist silent cinema to emerge from this period during the Republic’s all-too-brief heyday, with erotically charged subject matter that throws a symbolic spotlight on the unprecedented social and sexual politics of a politically fragile but culturally vital post-World War 1 era, when the arts reached a creative peak in the midst of political and economic turmoil that would eventually see a nascent democracy unravel completely and totalitarian forces taking over. This was a period when the arts had their roots planted firmly -- in the phrase of the anti-fascist writer Arnold Zweig -- “in the dual sensibility of the vast destructiveness of war and the powerful creativity of revolution.” German society was undergoing a series of radical social and political changes in the aftermath of its defeat in the Great War, with the old, militaristic Wilhelmine order being forced to give way to revolutionary enthusiasms unleashed by a fledgling democracy that had emerged amid the unruly forces of a modernity governed by rapid industrialisation. The era nurtured a freeing of the creative spirit, that existed simultaneously with a loosening of attitudes to censorship leading to great innovations in music, theatre, art, photography, design and film during the 1920s, all of which seemed to revel in breaking with the stolid rules of the past. However, the artistic volatility of the period was also defined by great social conflict, primarily because the censorious, morally conservative and highly militaristic proclivities of the provincial aristocracy had never really been anything like fully vanquished by the revolution of 1918-19. Conservative forces would continue to regard the flowering of modernist innovation in the arts as a form of ‘cultural Bolshevism’ promoted by cosmopolitan elites in Berlin. The travails created by hyperinflation and, in the early 1930s, mass unemployment were to add more and more fuel to an already bitter, violently polarised society full of stark ideological divergences, social contradictions, and the opposing desire for both unlimited freedom and total mastery and control … A society, in other words, constantly at war with its own increasingly bifurcated sense of itself. 




Guided by the innovative directorial hand of Ewald André Dupont, and with exquisite cinematography by Karl Freund, the cinematic masterpiece Varieté (now available in the UK in glorious HD thanks to its recent Blu-ray release by Eureka Entertainment for the Masters of Cinema series) provides us with an ideal point of reference for understanding some of the forces at play in German society during this tumultuous time. For one thing, the movie gives us an insight into the development of German cinema, acting as a great demonstration piece that draws together the startling innovations in photography and camera movement pioneered by French filmmakers several years previously, but here utilised for the purposes of breath-baiting audience spectacle. Dupont took ‘the unfastened camera’ of Murnau’s The Last Laugh and created a dizzying spectacle which aimed to capture the vertiginous sensations of the trapeze, inter-cutting the realism and subjectivity of this imagery with expressionistic, sometimes almost surrealistic flights of fancy. Meanwhile, much of the vivid imagery and thematic undercurrents which lend this popular melodrama its particular fervent flavour seem to draw on contemporary social fears that relate to the changing role of women in German industrial society before and after the Great War. Concerns that the institution of marriage was being undermined after the establishment of the Republic by women going out to work more frequently, and about the provocativeness of a newly empowered form of female sexuality that was becoming more visible in public life, went hand-in-hand with increased awareness of a new social phenomenon: the independent ‘new woman’. All were ills associated with the increasingly modern forms of mechanised industrial consumer society -- which was an issue that particularly occupied German social, political and ethical theorists of the day. Such fears indicate that a crisis of masculinity was taking place in interwar Berlin at this time. For the historically aware modern viewer, this film now stands as an embodiment of many of the contradictions and ambivalences of the period; it is a movie that benefits considerably from the freeing effect produced by the new moral licence that came to the fore in Berlin during a period of lax censorship, and which allowed the film’s frank depiction of sexual longing and erotic obsession. But it also plays on those same fears to intersect with concerns that were being expressed by social conservatives and leftist thinkers alike, who all worried at the time that modern(ist) capitalist society was irrevocably altering or upsetting the balance of the relationship between the sexes. 



Such ideas turn out to describe the subtext to much of Dupont’s film perfectly, but, like his previous picture, The Humble Man and the Chanteuse, it had its origins in a much older piece of pre-war sensationalist fiction. The movie is based on a novel which went by the title The Oath of Stephan Huller, and was written and published in 1912 by the then domestically well-known novelist Felix Hollaender (son of the Composer Friedrich Hollanender), who would later work with Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater. In fact, the novel, and variations on its pulp themes and theatrical setting provided material for a number of movie adaptations. The first screen interpretation appeared in the year of the novel’s publication and was directed by the Danish filmmaker and actor Viggo Larsen -- mainly today associated with his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in several early silents. Reinhard Bruck supplied another retelling in 1921, as did Nicolas Farkas in 1935, although by this point Hollaender’s novel was no longer being credited as a source, so familiar had the love triangle subject matter become to audiences. A year later, British International Pictures released The Three Maxims, directed by a contemporary of Michael Balcon and Alexander Korda by the name of Herbert Wilcox and starring his wife, the actress Anna Neagle, who was to become one of Britain’s most popular wartime attractions as the star of copious lightweight musicals, comedies and costume dramas in the mid-40s. This fluffy, mild-mannered version was based on the Farkas re-telling, and strips away the darker tone that marks Dupont’s classic of ten years before. Finally, German-American director Kurt Neumannd (of the Johnny Weissmüller Tarzan series) produced a circus-themed variant of the story’s love triangle plotline in 1951. However, Dupont’s distillation of the novel’s melodramatic possibilities remains to date the most artistically compelling interpretation of the material, despite the shorter American cut stripping out the first act and removing much of the risqué moral tension of the piece. The director’s virtuoso use of the camera as a tool for conveying vertiginous impressions of the various characters’ subjective disorientations and their tormented mental states captures the intensity of experienced sensation, while standing alongside documentary-like images and scenes that act as a record of contemporary German life; the film’s innovations denote the director’s artful negotiation and management of both expressionist and New Objectivity sensibilities, and their associated techniques.  


Ewald André Dupont was born in the German town of Zeitz on Christmas day, 1891. After coming to prominence as a leading critic and newspaper columnist, he broke into the nascent German film industry as a screenwriter for Stern-Film-GmbH. Two years later, having by then produced at least sixteen scripts for detective serials by directors such as Joe May, he progressed to directing not only his own but also other writers’ murder mystery stories, many of which – such as The White Peacock and Whitechapel (both released in 1920) -- were set in England, often incorporating colourful variety stage performance and music hall settings. A prolific and well-respected leading light of Germany’s silent film industry, E.A. Dupont went on to direct twenty-three movies in just seven years, but it was his twenty-fourth, Varieté, which has secured him his place in cinematic history, if only amongst film scholars and cineastes. Unfortunately, Dupont is one of those early film artists who found it difficult to adapt when the sound era came along. Much of his later work has been overlooked and, consequently, his name has largely been forgotten by the public. Yet Varieté was a huge international smash in 1925, even without the racier images and plot points stripped from the U.S. version (re-titled Vaudeville) in order to make the German original Hays Code compliant (local state censorship boards were prone to removing still more material). Dupont was invited to Hollywood off of the back of the success of the film, but was able to make only one movie there -- for Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures. This was the romantic drama Love Me and the World is Mine, starring Mary Philbin (from The Phantom of the Opera), which went $350,000 over-budget and was not a success. A subsequent move to Britain resulted in several notable, visually extravagant productions made for British International Pictures: Moulin Rouge (1928) and the lavishly expensive Piccadilly (1929), starring Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong. He also helmed Atlantic (1929), an early talkie based on the Titanic disaster and made in two versions for English and German markets respectively, which were shot simultaneously at Elstree Studios with different casts. But Dupont found he was never able to reproduce in the talkies the subtle majesty of his best silent era work, and critical and commercial appreciation largely eluded him from here on in. He found it increasingly difficult to find decent directorial work and ended up flitting from company to company, often spending long stretches without employment. Although he remained active in various fields of the film industry throughout most of his life, when he did direct in later years it was mainly for low grade B-movies or TV series episodes. He died in Los Angeles of cancer in 1956. 



The plot of Varieté can be boiled down to the most basic elements of melodrama: hope, lust, jealousy, revenge and redemption. Ex-trapeze artist Boss Huller runs a seedy carnival near the port of Hamburg, living unhappily on-site in a cramped caravan with his downtrodden drudge of a wife and their infant son. A mysterious, nameless young foreign woman, orphaned aboard the ship she was brought to the country on (which gives her the name Berta-Marie) after her mother died of fever during their long ocean voyage, is practically sold to him and subsequently given a job as a sideshow dancer. Soon she reawakens in Huller the desire and determination to once more take up his old profession -- previously abandoned after a crippling accident -- as a trapeze catcher. Newly inspired, and now under his young charge’s hypnotic sexual spell, Huller leaves his wife and child for this inscrutable, casually provocative muse (who he has by-now trained as his assistant), and moves to Berlin, where the couple perform in a death-defying, open-air trapeze act. They come to the attention of a famous Italian trapeze artist called Artinelli, who has also recently moved to Berlin -- despondent and grief-stricken after the loss of his brother-&-partner during an accident that occurred when the duo were performing in London. Artinelli offers Huller and Berta-Marie a professional contract and they start performing together as a trio at the famous Berlin Wintergarten, soon becoming a huge vaudevillian attraction there. In no time at all they are the toast of Berlin thanks to a spectacular, blindfolded triple-somersault performed without safety net, which fills the famous variety theatre with awed spectators. However, the inevitable happens, and the caddish Artinelli (who has always had one crafty eye on the sultry Berta-Marie), lures the young woman into his bed with promises of greater riches if they dump Huller and set off together for a glittering career in America. Huller finds out, sees red, and murders Artinelli in a raging fit of sexual jealousy. He ends up in prison, from where he relates the entire story to a sympathetic prison Governor in exchange for redemption that’s delivered in the form of a written note of forgiveness from his abandoned wife and child.  



The book-ending prison sequences used to frame the story as a flashback do not reveal the face of Boss Huller until we return to them at the very end of the film, after his story has been told and the hearty, strapping, bull-necked figure of a man with a twinkle in his eye we’ve been watching gradually come apart at the seams is shown to have been made stooped, tired, prematurely aged and psychologically broken as the result of the events depicted. This performance constitutes one of the Swiss-born actor Emil Jannings’ most iconic screen appearances. A popular actor in Weimar cinema after starting out as a stage performer who, like the film’s novelist author, became associated with director Max Reinhardt’s ensemble at the Deutsches Theatre, forming connections with many leading lights of Weimar culture such as photographer Frieda Riess and The Blue Angel screenwriter & polymath Karl Vollmoller, Jannings had already worked with Ernst Lubitsch and had just starred in FW Murnau’s The Last Laugh  -- the first of several collaborations that would go on to produce the silent classics Tartuffe and Faust – when he came to make his appearance in Dupont’s Varieté. Despite his becoming the only German actor to win an Academy Award for best performance, Jannings' reputation went into terminal decline thanks to his willingness to appear in Nazi propaganda films during the ‘30s; but at this point in the mid-1920s, he was still at his peak professionally. The opening prison segment leading into the extended flashback that provides the meat of the story, demonstrates the film’s winning combination of Jannings’ gestural performance and Dupont’s intelligent staging and knack for striking composition, which work together throughout to make Varieté still a moving spectacle even when its innovations in camera movement no longer retain the ability to dazzle as they would have done during the picture’s heyday. Jannings was, famously, for the entirety of this opening segment, required to convey Huller’s crushed dejection while acting with his back to the camera, with the particulars of his haggard, dead-eyed countenance saved up for a ‘reveal’ when we return to his present situation at the end of the movie -- at which point it becomes a window through which we see the damage that Huller’s years of misdeeds have wrought upon his psyche. Upon a re-watch we can also see how Dupont makes use of visual rhymes and synonyms during this opening prologue, to prefigure elements of the plot before they are seen to later unfold and that, for the character of Huller, act as damning, regret-inducing reminders of his past foolishness: a large circular chamber, around which the prisoners are forced to march in single file, anticipates the cut to an image of a Ferris Wheel fairground ride – one of the first images that we see when the film flashes back to Huller’s career as a carnival manager; while the long walk down a shadowy prison corridor towards the Governor’s office that Huller has to take after being summoned there for his assessment pending a review of his case, turns out to be a foreshadowing of the suspenseful climax to the movie and the scene that takes place just after Huller has murdered Artinelli (we see him washing his bloodied hands in a basin shortly after the terrible deed) in which he walks, in a daze, down the long hotel corridor towards the downstairs reception desk – Berta-Marie collapsing in shock behind him -- to ask for the police to be called to the scene of his own crime …  



The first part of the flashback provides an introduction to the younger Boss Huller (Jannings) and his wife (Maly Delschaft) -- and their grim life together running a carnival sideshow attraction that seems to cater mainly to the sordid lusts of various grotesquely rendered Lumpenhund. This part of the film plays as an expressionistic vignette within a photographic realist setting, defined by the faces of Weimar’s poverty-stricken masses -- both its criminal- and working-classes -- as they jostle for command of the limited space in an over-crowded frame. In many ways these images echo the work of the German portrait and documentary photographer August Sander, who, as part of his People of the 20th Century series, was interested in documenting through photographic portraiture in the Weimar era individuals who represented all aspects of German society before and after the First World War, including travelers, circus performers, the unemployed and the sick and disabled. Although his work was produced with socially progressive ideals in mind, August Sander was also a proponent of physiognomy: the belief that outward appearances reveal the inner essences of certain groups or ‘types’ of people – and the film’s depiction of a leering, lustful, objectifying, unruly working-class masculinity crowding into the pitiful ‘beauty contest’ tent that Huller and his wife preside over, seems to offer an extreme example of this doctrine, suggesting a degenerate class that is lacking in any moral grounded-ness, self-discipline or respect for order. 


The Beauty Contest sideshow Boss Huller and his wife run, offers to take the wives of male spectators and turn them into glamourous exemplars of femininity by re-packaging and presenting them back to their fervent husbands for a short while as erotic ‘Living Theatre’ exhibits. A montage of the distinctly unglamorous, worn-down, tired out and clapped-out faces of the wives and women folk, in their dirty, raggedy clothing, gives way to Huller’s sideshow transformation of them -- which allows the cracked, misshapen irregular features of the males packing the audience a short term relief based on a normally unobtainable fantasy version of ‘their’ women, with hair groomed and make-up applied to convey movie star pulchritude, and limbs and torsos scantily swathed in peek-a-boo-fine muslin robes so that they fleetingly become akin to unreachable movie screen goddesses. It’s a strange, disconcertingly frank depiction of the male gaze … so full of impotent, voyeuristic longing, yet also a rough tool of oppression and manipulation of the female form. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the dramatic change in the visibility and in the status of women which had occurred during the war years had resulted in a coarsening of German conceptions of masculinity. In the 19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II had defined German women's position in society in terms that described its rootedness in the tradition of 'Kirche, Kueche, Kinder' -- or church, kitchen and children. But war and the subsequent November Revolution upended such reactionary ideas, and brought women into the workplace in increasing numbers. Women during this time also began to ‘command the streets’ in the big cities, with fashion and advertising becoming increasingly important in a consumer culture symbolised by the advent of the Department store, which was a great help in making women going out alone unchaperoned a respectable occurrence by providing them with ‘feminised spaces’ that were recognised as ‘safe’. After being given the right to vote in 1919, women accounted for 52% of an electorate which had seen its male numbers vastly depleted by war. 

In many ways, the story of Varieté is a dramatization of the psychological turmoil and paranoia of the German male psyche of the 1920s, conveying its myriad weaknesses rooted in idealised nostalgia, and its misogynistic fear of nearly all aspects of the new femininity that had come to the fore during the post-war era. The film can be read as part of the backlash against women’s emancipation and their new visibility on the streets, which also involves a longing for a return to a pre-war notion of Woman rooted in nurture and the family. This paranoid traditionalism was even more suspicious of exotic foreign types of female who bring new and ‘un-German’ conceptions of femininity into circulation; also in the Weimar era, when urban centers such as Berlin became playgrounds of sexual licence and every conceivable form of sexual experimentation, there was a popular boom in sex counselling clinics and marriage guidance advice manuals, which were published in order to address the sexual problems of the average man and woman in an unprecedentedly frank way during a period when divorce rates were rocketing. 


In the film, it is Boss Huller’s inability to accept his humble circumstances and to appreciate his poor but diligent, plump but devoted wife as she is in the present day that leads to his downfall. Instead, his infatuation with the exotic, demure, almost doll-like Berta-Marie becomes caught up in a nostalgic yearning to recapture the glory of his younger and better days: his desire to recreate a period when he and his wife were partners in a successful trapeze act. Huller’s initially cheerful acquiescence in the mundane routines of a threadbare family life lived out in the couple’s cramped caravette is interrupted by Berta-Marie’s unexpected arrival, and dissatisfaction with Huller’s lot in life is kindled by her exotic appearance, along with the re-emergence of his libido. By training the youthful Berta-Marie as his new trapeze assistant he is replacing his wife with a younger model, but this process also involves the complete rejection of the family: his infant son as well as his faithful wife. A typically melodramatic scene illustrates the torments Huller suffers in order to blank out the past for a fantasy recreation: he strikes out at Berta-Marie for waking the baby when she comes back to the caravette after finishing her act one night, but just as quickly succumbs to her charms seconds later! Huller’s mid-life crisis comes to stand for the general crisis of masculinity being played out throughout Weimar Germany at the time. The film, of course, also itself benefited from modern Weimar’s unusual frankness about the depiction of sex: Huller’s torrid encounters with Berta-Marie were far steamier than anything encountered in American movies at the time, where its scenes of partial nudity would have been completely out of the question (hence the drastic cuts administered to the U.S. version). Yet, this is a movie in which both the male and female protagonists are depicted as victims of larger societal forces over which they have next to no control, or even awareness …



The character of Berta-Marie, her initial depiction and later development under the wing of first Boss Huller and then Artinelli, is at the core of this movie’s complex of ideas about women and their relationships with men in a rapidly industrialising post-war world of ‘Fordism’ dominated by the principles of consumerism. She was played by the Hungarian actress Lya De Putti, a performer noted for her distinctive portrayal of vamp characters in the silent film era, and rather astutely cast in Varieté given her background in vaudeville in her native Hungary and her later career as a ballet dancer who performed at the Berlin Winter Gardens in 1924 -- which is also the famous venue where Huller, Berta-Marie and Artinelli are seen to perform their extraordinary feats in the film. When Berta-Marie first appears -- presented to Huller by the Captain of a cargo ship almost as a nameless pet who is to be taken ownership of -- her otherness and foreignness are highlighted by the exoticness of her scanty robe, which, in its paucity, also reveals the slightly darker complexion of her skin. Her lack of clothing also suggests something innately sexual is to be associated with such foreign forms of otherness. Yet there is also a strangely robotic or mechanical quality to Berta-Marie’s ability to command sexual desire in male spectators. Her large, painted eyes make her look like a blank doll brought to life through sheer force of male sexual fantasy, and the gyrating movements she makes that drive the men wild when she performs her sideshow routine have an automated, unconscious feel to them. A similar idea -- of sexual response being produced automatically under conditions of clockwork or robotic processes of mechanisation -- is conveyed during Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis, when Brigette Helm’s robot Maria performs her extraordinary fetish-dance at the decadent nightclub Yoshiwara. 


Such a characterisation of female sexuality in an industrialised setting has ambivalent and contradictory connotations that suggest countervailing forces of alienation and arousal existing side-by-side in perpetual tension. The contemporary work of feminist Dada artist Hannah Hoch encapsulates much of this thinking in innovative photomontages critiquing the technological forces that shaped notions of gender and race in Weimar society’s age of industrial assembly lines and advertising propaganda. The New Woman was in many ways a creation of the window-shop culture of Department stores and consumer products targeting working women as they took on the roles of clerks and secretaries in large urban centres, presenting a lifestyle image holding glamour and independence up as a spectacle to be slavishly imitated. Lya De Putti’s character mixes unconscious, robotic, sex-by-numbers dance motions with a primitive, raw exoticism that is a form of sexuality that echoes themes found in the work of Hoch, who explicitly went against the notions of racial purity that were to have such a destructive effect on German politics, to present hybrid forms of race and images of gender fluidity which are an attempt to provide alternatives to the shackles created by conservative gender attitudes and society’s commodification of femininity. Yet, it is the negative effect of this free expression on Boss Huller which is the main concern of the film, which presents Berta-Marie as an unwitting temptress, whose proximity sends Huller off the rails and leads him to do the unthinkable and abandon his family in order to mould this intoxicating creature into his idealised partner.

Huller and Berta-Marie move to Berlin in order that Huller might escape his hated domestic life, and to recreate his youthful days as a trapeze catcher par excellence. Here the movie takes on more of a documentary reportage tone, as it presents an introductory montage of city attractions and images that are largely guided by a brief shift of narrative focus that comes with the film’s depiction of the arrival in Berlin of famous Italian trapeze artist Artinelli, played by debonair British silent actor Warwick Ward. The backdrop to the development of the theme of a dejected (and initially sympathetic) Artinelli’s grief over the death of his performance partner-&-brother, during a stunt-gone-wrong at the London Coliseum, is provided by images that capture the real-life Tiller Girls (one of the many popular ‘girl revue’ acts that flourished internationally during the interwar years) arriving for rehearsals at the Berlin Wintergarten, and many other rea-life contemporary variety acts that are also shown actually performing their various routines on stage in front of the venue’s large audiences. Dupont is able to integrate such documentary verisimilitude with the film’s more melodramatic spectacle with surprisingly smooth results. When the Wintergarten’s manager presents Huller and Berta-Marie to Artinelli as prospective replacement partners for the Italian's dead brother, it is his immediate furtive sexual interest in Berta-Marie which alerts the viewer to the less noble aspects of his character, setting up the clash that is to come when Huller’s blind, idealistic romantic devotion meets Artinelli’s caddish behind-the-scenes scheming. The film’s middle section is sustained by the obvious tension that is inevitably generated when a romantic love triangle develops between performers who nightly hold each-other’s lives in the others’ hands as they pirouette above the heads of their amazed audiences.


It is at this point that the previously inscrutable Berta-Marie is made more clearly the centre of the narrative rather than merely a device for indicating Boss Huller’s dissatisfaction, or for galvanising his desire to radically alter his domestic circumstances. As the trio become the ‘toast of Berlin’, Berta-Marie is transformed into an exemplar of the ‘new woman’ portrayed so assiduously throughout contemporary German film and advertising during this period. Her sexually provocative ethnicity is now de-emphasised, and instead she becomes a modern, fashionably attired, cloche hatted woman of the streets, who enjoys the society of the city’s smoky cafes and the raucous nightclub culture of a neon-illuminated Berlin after dark. This movie can be read as an iteration of a contemporary consumer image culture which Hannah Hoch was critiquing with her Dada-inspired photomontages and which Frankfurt School social theorists such as Siegfried Kracauer analysed in collections such as Kracauer’s The Mass Ornament. Lya De Putti’s Berta-Marie is another Weimar era female film character in the tradition of those played regularly by the likes of Louise Brooks or Marlene Dietrich, who expand the repertoire of possibilities that could be made available to women of the 1920s. In presenting themselves as spectacle they gain independence through the power the image enables them to wield over men, but they invariably appear in narratives that judge and/or punish them for the privilege. In this instance, Berta-Marie's urban sophistication and glamour also leave her vulnerable to the attentions of people like Artinelli, who virtually rapes her in their initial sexual encounter! The fact that this forging of an urban feminine identity is only made possible by the all-conquering logic of industry-led consumer capitalism is as much a source of ambivalence in the narratives of the movies of this period as it is for the leftist ideologies expounded by Hoch and Kracauer: while Kracauer laments the ‘distraction culture’ augmented by mass-produced entertainments such as movies (whose methods echo the conveyor belt production methods of industry) or the internationally popular spectacle provided by Revue shows such as those practised by the Tiller Girls, who are “a product of American distraction factories [and] are no longer individual girls but indissoluble girl clusters whose movements demonstrate mathematics”, many of these ‘distractions’ are ultimately themselves presenting a compromising image of modern womanhood: the new modern identity Berta-Marie constructs for herself in Berlin, which is rooted in the acquisitive values of that modernity, results in her becoming vulnerable to the romantic follies Artinelli exploits to woo her with the aim of stealing her away from Huller, even though he has treated her roughly in order to have his way with her. Her willingness to dump Huller for a foolhardy dream is paralleled with Huller’s own thoughtless casting aside of his domestic arrangements in Hamburg and the abandonment of his wife and infant son this entails. But while male protagonists such as Boss Huller are presented as hapless, hopeless romantic sops who cannot be entirely blamed for their moral failings when society is radically transformed all around them by relations between men and women that have been unsettled by female emancipation, the situation for the female protagonists is even more tragic: they are simultaneously offered up as powerful avatars upon which female audiences can model themselves through the consumption of the attractive image they present, while also being portrayed as the ultimate cause of all society’s pain and turmoil.       

The Eureka Entertainment dual formatted edition offers numerous ways to experience the film. The original German cut, featuring a prologue that details Boss Huller’s fall from grace into a life of adultery and lust, is the recipient of the wonderful high-definition digital restoration created by the F.W. Murnau Society; but there is also a fairly decent tinted print included of the bowdlerised American cut for completests, which has many of the more risqué elements removed. The latter comes with a fairly traditional silent movie film score, but the German version offers us three quite diverse and distinct score choices that bring out different moods and qualities in the film: Stephen Horne, house pianist at London’s BFI Southbank, gives us a solid piano-based score with many lyrical moments that emphasise the story’s inherent tragedy; while New Zealand-based composer Johannes Contag contributes a slightly more strident piece of music. Composed for chamber orchestra and pitched at recreating the atmosphere of Weimar era Berlin, it was originally intended to be performed at live screenings. Both versions provide contrasting attempts to portray the psychological profile of the various characters in the movie using musical texture and melody. The third option here might be slightly more controversial: created by the prolific post-modern vaudevillian band The Tiger Lillies, who’re fronted by accordion player and self-taught opera singer Martyn Jacques, this is a brash, often wilfully abrasive avant garde modernist opera – a sort of burlesque punk rock take on Bertolt Brecht and Jacques Brel, that seems like it would have been perfectly at home in the decadent world of 1920s Berlin, but which often settles for simply describing on-screen events rather than providing emotional colouring for them. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting experimental approach to one of Germany’s greatest pieces of interwar drama.        






Tuesday, 11 April 2017

DAS CABINET DES DR CALIGARI (1920)

By the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century, horror had fully established itself as a genre in the new medium of cinema. Early filmmakers quickly latched onto the rising popularity of a wave of gothic literature that emerged during the late-nineteenth and early part of the new century, created by writers such as Bram Stoker and M.R. James, etc. German filmmakers were in the vanguard of this trend, and by 1916 an early film version of Gaston Leroux’s serialised 1911 novel The Phantom of the Opera had already been released, while Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was the subject of numerous movie interpretations that appeared throughout Europe in countries such as Denmark, Russia, Hungary and America, as well as Germany. The German actor, poet, philosopher, and writer of a particularly dark strain of the new gothic occult literature, Hanns Heinz Ewers, had a particularly robust influence on the development of Germany’s part in this forging of horror as a suitable cinematic subject, adapting his own take on Poe’s short story William Wilson for Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye’s  film The Student of Prague in 1913, and supplying a particular sensibility -- evident in much of his major literary work -- whose influence could still be felt later, even in apparently unrelated blockbusters, such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Meanwhile, in 1915, director/actor Wegener and writer Henrik Galeen’s Der Golem presented cinema with the first animated non-human monster ever to stalk the screen, thanks to a fusion of Jewish myth and gothic ambience. However, by far the greatest milestone in the establishment of the aesthetics and imagery of the genre was also created in Weimar Germany that same year, in 1920. Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari forever fixed Expressionism as Horror’s principle language of choice. Its vocabulary was one delineated in harsh contrasting smears of light and shadow, with a syntax of twisted, angular, unreal landscapes that were constructed in-studio to embody geometric principles of abstract-modernist set design. This was embroidered with brooding, jagged chiaroscuro which aimed to reflect the shattered psychology of unbalanced characters adrift in a threatening, uncertain world where the unconscious, psychotic drives of megalomaniacs govern the very texture of one’s experience of reality. 

This film set the bar for German Expressionism as the newest and most modern mode of cinematic invention. It was also to become the precursor to 1940s film noir and the horror boom that preceded it in North American cinema of the 1930s, long after many of Germany’s best technicians, actors and directors had already taken their talents to Hollywood in successive waves of emigration, driven ultimately by the need to flee calamitous political events in their home country before the Second World War. Even if you’re coming to this historically all-important film for the first time via this exquisitely restored, beautifully tinted new high definition transfer from Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema label, there is barely a frame of what is still a vitally compelling picture that will not at once seem totally familiar to you: James Whale’s version of Frankenstein depends on a central performance from Boris Karloff as the Monster that is the logical extension of combining Paul Wegener’s lumbering Golem with Conrad Veidt’s still unsettlingly delicate performance as the tragic, cadaverous, sleepwalking androgyne of Caligari, Cesare; while -- to take just two random examples -- Tod Browning’s  Mark of the Vampire and Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue adapt elements of the Caligari visual style -- its illogical narrative convolutions, and even specific images -- to fit Universal’s by-this-stage already much-indebted horror aesthetic. 

Because of this, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari has become the central founding text of German Expressionist cinema, and is undoubtedly an important influence on much of what came out of the country in its wake during the rest of the 1920s, kicking off the process of opening up the German film market to the rest of the world again after the embargo put in place throughout much of Europe during The First World War. As a result, German Expressionism is a term that is often now applied rather too loosely to other works in the gothic genre that had in fact been at least partly conceived as a direct reaction to Caligari’s stripped down conventions of abstract artifice  … films such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu for instance, which contrasted studio-created decor from the shadow-haunted realms of nightmare that defined the expressionist style, with naturalistic exterior landscape scenes influenced by traditional German Romantic painting, all quite antithetical to the expressionist credo.


As an interwar product of Weimar Germany during its period of greatest social unrest and economic upheaval, this film, which seemed so ripe with symbolism and abstraction thanks to its appropriation of modernist principles allied to an essentially dreamlike fable of a story combining crime, occult mystery and madness in equal measure, was always destined to be the subject of myth-making and obfuscation. Accounts of its creation differ and contradict each other, but most are heavily influenced by film critic Siegfried Kracauser’s landmark 1947 study of German silent cinema, From Caligari to Hitler:  A Psychological History of German Film, which presented a case for the films that were produced in Germany during the Weimar period being best understood as prophetic, unconscious distillations and anticipations of the rise of German authoritarianism, which took the form in real life of the criminal, megalomaniacal doctrine of Nazism.

To back up his thesis, Kracauser made extensive use of an unpublished memoir written in 1941 by Hans Janowitz, one of the two screenwriters who conceived the film’s original screenplay. For years his became the standard account of the picture’s genesis, with the strangely strutting figure of the top-hatted vaudevillian barker Dr Caligari (mesmerically portrayed by Werner Krauss) becoming the metaphoric embodiment of the German state under Hitler, with the sinister character’s catatonic puppet-somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), the personification of a society controlled and manipulated into unleashing madness, confusion and murder upon its disintegrating surroundings. Certainly such a thesis is backed up and corroborated by the later work of Ufa producer Erich Pommer, particularly that which was created in collaboration with one of the prime exemplars of auteur Expressionism: Fritz Lang, whose Dr Mabuse: The Gambler was quite forthright in linking a use of expressionist décor with the contemporary pulp crime origins of its material in order to create a fictional analogue to the chaos of contemporary Weimar society.

In fact, both Pommer and Lang were at least tangentially involved in the initial conception of Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari: Pommer was head of production at Decla Bioscope before its absorption into Ufa, and was the executive who had the contract drawn up to buy the screenplay from Janowitz and co-writer Carl Mayer, recognising a mystery story that had elements of the Grand Guignol – a style that was at the time popular in German films; although Pommer was not directly involved with the creative decisions pertaining to Caligari’s eventual production. As for Lang’s involvement, like much of what he subsequently said about his own movies, the director’s claim to have been responsible for conceiving the framing story is probably untrue. However, he did act as a go-between in Janowitz’s initial meeting with Erich Pommer, and his 1933 talkie sequel to the first multi-part Mabuse film, The Testament of Dr Mabuse, not only recapitulates similar themes to those which play a central role in Caligari, but also re-treads a great deal of the same plot, particularly the sections involving the insane asylum; which are, of course, also the sections Lang claims to have come up with as a better replacement for the wraparound framing segment that Janowitz and Mayer wrote for their original script!


By positing a character who is so charismatic, and whose cult of personality is so all-powerful and psychologically domineering that his megalomaniacal obsessions come to possess a life of their own, lingering on in the psyches of those who come into contact with him (or even anyone who might just simply have once heard of him), as though his beliefs were a virus with the ability to endow their originator with a kind of immortality -- Lang seemed to offer a vivid metaphor for the power of Fascism to escape the specific bonds of the individual psychology which had given birth to it, allowing it to become a destructive part of the cultural zeitgeist; yet, thanks to a series of plot twists in the final act, the same idea was already inherent to the version of Caligari that ended up on the screen. In the Kracauser interpretation, Janowitz’s vehement loathing of war, brought about  as a result of his background in the Austrian army and his grief at the loss of his brother in 1917 during fighting on the Italian front, becomes evidence that he and Mayer subconsciously intended the film as an anti-war parable, with an anecdote about Mayer’s supposed battle with an army psychiatrist to try and get himself declared too mentally unstable to fight during the war being used as another piece of supporting evidence.

But, however appealing this narrative might be, when it comes to our understanding of the circumstances that surrounded the making of Caligari, it is almost certainly a case of retro-fitting the facts to fit an attractive thesis. It has since been discovered that Mayer was actually invalided out of the army after just one day because of a childhood foot injury, and Janowitz’s assertion that all of the mad expressionistic décors and weird, unsettling modernist art trappings (which have become so much a part of the film’s identification with the experimental avant-garde of the period) were pre-specified by him in the script, seems to have turned out not to have been true either now that scholars can compare the film with a lone surviving copy of the original shooting script which once belonged to actor Werner Krauss. Certainly the two writers came up with the main body of the story, that much is not in doubt; but it seems clear also that the screenplay they fashioned could just have as easily been made in a far more conventional Gothic style, and the distinctive expressionist mode of writing that Karl Mayer later developed during his ground-breaking collaborations with Murnau on films like Tartuffe and The Last Laugh (which famously dispensed with intertitles altogether), is nowhere near as evident as was once assumed it would have been.


Most of the other fanciful stories Janowitz tells in relation to the film -- such as the idea that it had been partly inspired by his unknowingly having witnessed the murder of a young woman while visiting an amusement park, and then seeing the same suspect again later attending the girl’s funeral -- seem unlikely to be true either. None of this detracts from the historical importance or the compelling nature of the work when viewed today, though: instead, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari can be seen as a collaborative process, its unique style the result of close communication between the director Robert Wiene, producer Rudolph Meinert, designer Hermann Warm, and painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig who most likely took their inspiration from the popularity of expressionist décor in German theatrical productions of the period.  Echoing this source, the film's sets were composed of painted backdrops and cut-outs, their details painted onto the walls, floors and canvas backcloths of the studio; with shapes rendered distorted and threatening, and structures jutting at strange angles over narrow streets constructed out of studio flats. Costumes do not suggest any clear time period and range from modern 1920s styles of dress to Biedermeier period. Artificiality is emphasised and unreality celebrated in every aspect: when we’re presented with a scene from a town fair near the beginning of the film, the town is simply a painted backdrop depicting houses crowed on a hill that have been painted in cubist style; while the fair itself consists of nothing more than a crowd of extras milling among a few coloured paper spinning tops, positioned in front of said backcloth to suggest the bustle of merry-go-round rides. 

The film is, then, the embodiment of a set of cultural trends popular in Germany during a period when German film companies were on the lookout for new ways of attracting audiences by utilising outlandish or striking art ‘gimmicks’. Because, although Expressionism is often now associated with the tumultuous interwar years thanks to its prevalence in German cinema after 1920, in fact the word was mainly used before that as an umbrella term denoting a loose affiliation of art movements centred around Germany and Austria-Hungary in the early part of the century, including the likes of Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism and Constructivism, and extending well beyond the visual arts to include the poetry and literature of the era. After the war, the utopian philosophical aims of these battling movements gave way to darker, more disillusioned strains of thought, while the characteristic, crazily jagged geometric patterns found throughout the artistic works of expressionist artists began to be increasingly familiar to the public as they were also by then being appropriated by poster designers, graphic illustrators and theatre set designers as well, until the term became a recognised part of the mainstream; even Berlin’s famous carnival attraction, the Luna Park, re-opened after the war years redecorated in a manner indicative of Expressionist principles. Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari is fascinating today, then, for being a popular film of its period, aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, but which, nevertheless, dresses itself in clothing sourced from avant-garde art of the early part of the twentieth century in order to attract an audience hungry for new sensations; an audience that would have been very familiar by then with the visual style of Expressionism, but which would not have seen it applied in the medium of cinema before. The film is doubly a curiosity for the modern viewer, since it embodies both arthouse cinema principles and those of popular film, successfully bringing them together when today we’re used to thinking of the two as irreconcilably opposed almost by definition.


Robert Wiene and his collaborators were the first to discover that weird, fable-like gothic horror stories and outré, anti-realist design principles could be made to work together harmoniously to reinforce an unsettling atmosphere through abstract mise-en-scene; but beyond that they also brought modernist ideas to the construction of the script, and turned a simple Grand Guignol mystery story into something more indicative of the work of Franz Kafka or of E.T. A. Hoffmann. Under the influence of the idea that the film had  been meant by its writers as an anti-war condemnation of German authoritarianism, the bookending framing device which turns the story of Caligari and his fortune-telling somnambulist murderer Cesare into a tale told by the inmate of a lunatic asylum, has often been condemned for neutralising both the strangeness of the film’s design and the content of the story, because it presents everything that we see as something that can safely be dismissed as the outpourings of a madman. In fact the film’s narrative is a lot more unsettling and ambiguous than that, and is more akin to the story structure of a late career David Lynch film such as Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, in which it is impossible to say for sure what is dream and what is reality, who is sane and who is insane; it’s a narrative deliberately left open to interpretation, ending on a deeply ambiguous note, capable of being interpreted in multiple ways; one that leaves many more questions unanswered than it addresses. In fact, the asylum framing story is actually much more radical than the one originally conceived by Janowitz and Mayer, where events become merely an anecdote related by the two protagonists concerned, Franzis and Jane, about an incident which is now safely locked away harmlessly in the distant past. The fact that they are a married couple in this version of the framing story suggests everything turns out well for them in the end, while in the film as it stands nothing could be further from the case!   

The film begins on an already deeply mysterious note, with a haunted-looking elderly Gentleman (Hans Lanser-Rudolf) and a younger man -- who we later learn is called Franzis (Friedrich Fehér) -- seated together on a bench in front of a high wall in a gloomy park that seems to be gathering darkness all about it. The older man talks ambiguously about spirits being all around them, and how these spirits have driven him from hearth and home, wife and child. This strange, forlorn opening line is never much commented upon in critical analysis, since it comes from such a minor character in the framing story. But it seems central to a film in which solving a murder mystery appears to lead to dissolution of identity and the self, and, eventually, the apparent unravelling of reality itself for the leading character. These ‘spirits’ could be the deranged beliefs of those overcome by insanity (at this point we don’t know that both figures are occupants of an insane asylum) or, if we believe as literal fact the story that is soon to be told, they could refer to the spirit of Caligari himself, who seems to represent abuse of power and authority through the exploitation of those who have none.


Prompted by the appearance of an ethereal woman in white who looks to be in a trance, and whom he claims as his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover), Franzis responds with a fable-like story of his own, set in his home town of Holstenwall, which appears as a peculiar medieval hill fort full of crazily leaning structures and dark, jutting streets built around town squares surrounded by angular sloping parapets and protruding ramparts, where crooked lanes lead off into woodland dominated by the silhouettes of leafless trees.

The occupants of the town are transfixed by the spectacle of a leering, preening, black-cloaked showman known as Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), who appears at the local annual carnival fair in a booth displaying an upright wooden casket-crate, inside which there resides a thin, deathly pale figure of a twenty-three-year-old man called Cesare (Conrad Veidt), clad in a skin-tight, chalk-stained, woollen black suit. Cesare the somnambulist has, it is claimed, slept almost continuously throughout his life and only awakens briefly at the command of his master to tell the fortunes of those among the audience willing to step up and ask about their fates. A series of murders occur in the town soon after the act’s appearance at the fair … first the official who had earlier kept Caligari waiting for a permit he needed to be allowed to display his attraction in Holstenwall, and then Franzis’s best friend Allan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), are brutally slain in their beds -- stabbed in the side with a strange, elongated instrument. Connecting Cesare’s prediction of Allan’s death to subsequent events, Franzis suspects the skulking figure of Caligari of the crimes, and attempts to search his caravan in the company of Dr Olfen (Ludwig Rex), Jane’s father. Jane is the woman both Franzis and Allan have been rivals in love for. A copycat killer (played by Dr Mabuse himself, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, in an un-credited role) is blamed for the crimes and the investigation into Caligari is called off, leaving the diabolical showman free to exact revenge on Franzis and Olfen by sending Cesare off to murder Jane …


Both Werner Krauss, who plays Caligari, and Conrad Veidt, who is the cadaverous sleepwalking charge compelled to murder by Caligari’s hypnotic force of will, had appeared together before in an Expressionist theatrical production staged by Max Reinhardt,  so they had developed a perfectly complementary rapport grounded in the artificially exaggerated acting style needed for this kind of outlandish film. (Their respective roles here are made all the more apposite given their very different responses to the rise of Hitler: Krauss was an anti-semite who became an enthusiastic cultural ambassador for Nazism; Veidt married a Jew and fled to England when the regime began purging the German film industry of ‘undesirables’.) Krauss’s and Veidt’s performances lay a great many of the ground rules for the genre of Horror as we know it, their roles conveying a warped, gothic-flavoured intimation of Freud’s division of the mind into Id, ego and superego – another piece of early twentieth century modernity drafted in to bring resonance to this twisted fairy story. Caligari dominates the corpse-like Cesare (Veidt’s makeup, with pale skin highlighting further the blackened eyes & lips that bring a skull-like menace to his visage, anticipates many aspects of the design of Karloff’s Monster), but he also lives out his own suppressed urges through the corpse-like puppet, endowing this etiolated being who can barely summon the energy to open his own eyes, with a manic life force combining Caligari’s own murderous rage with a peculiar tinge of sexual longing. Witness, for instance, the innuendo implicit in the scene in which Jane is persuaded by the giggling showman to enter Caligari’s tent, where she is made to look upon Cesare in his crate after his master furtively nudges open the door of the somnambulist’s cabinet in front of her: there is an undertow of sexual lewdness to Krauss’s performance here, as though Caligari were some kind of dirty old man excitedly anticipating exposing himself to a beautiful, unsuspecting innocent. And then there is Cesare’s fascinated, wide-eyed glare in return, when Caligari orders him to wake up and gaze upon Jane for the first time ... There is even a kind of allegorical complicity in the excitement of the carnival audiences who flock to see Caligari’s act, with its lure of the forbidden, the promise of the transgressive, and the prospect of these traits being combined with revelation and enlightenment – an oddly suggestive mosaic of psychic properties.


In fact, though, those revelations all lead us back to the lunatic asylum where the tale originally started: Franzis follows Caligari there after Cesare’s apparent death, when the somnambulist's attempt to go against his programming has resulted in his decision to abduct rather than kill Jane. From this point on, the film enters what we would now call a Lynchian labyrinth of alternate identities and parallel realities. First, we find out that the dishevelled mad-eyed showman Dr Caligari is in fact the director of the Holstenwall Insane Asylum: obsessed with the subject of somnambulism, and whether or not a human being can be made entirely subject to another’s will, the director has quietly gone mad and taken on the identity of a legendary mystic he’d once read about in one of his medical books: a travelling showman who was supposed to have toured Northern Italy in the Eighteenth century bringing terror to the local populations with his somnambulist killer Cesare. But then we return to the framing story and discover that Franzis and the old man he has been relating all these peculiar events to, are themselves both inmates of the same insane asylum, which still bears the same crazy Expressionist design and which has a forecourt filled with inmates, including those we had known previously as Cesare and Jane. Each of them is apparently obliviously lost inside their own isolated version of reality. The director appears and commands the attendants to lead a distraught Franzis back to his cell, and we notice that the ‘real’ asylum director is indeed the same man we’ve known throughout to be Caligari, but who is now immaculately groomed and behaves far more naturalistically. As Franzis is shut away in his cell, the director claims to have finally understood his patient's delusion: Franzis believes that the director is ‘that mystic Caligari’ … Having now divined this, the director claims that he now knows how to cure this inmate.

There are multiple ways of reading this unexpected and puzzling conclusion. Each one requires the viewer to add his or her own assumptions in order to make them work. Even if we accept that the whole film has been the outpouring of a madman, populated with the faces of other inmates from the asylum, what does the director mean by his cryptic final remark? One conclusion I’ve always liked is that this second version of Caligari, who certainly appears to be in charge, is in fact merely another inmate who has at some point deluded himself into believing that he is indeed the director of the asylum. The somewhat remote way in which the attendants regard him suggests this idea; and that they merely tolerate this harmless old man following them about pronouncing on the condition of the other patients. If this really is the director, though, the furtive glint in his eye as he considers ‘the cure’ he must now administer suggests Franzis is about to become a guinea pig in some medical trial treatment that he is completely powerless to resist – his situation akin, then, to the sleeping Cesare, and his previous delusional story an allegorical prediction of his own plight, perhaps even a coded allusion to the crimes he may well have once committed. As  film critic David Kalat says in his absorbing audio commentary, included with the new Masters of Cinema restored edition of this landmark film, the artificial, shadow-painted world of Holstenwall and its cardboard fairground with its mad, skulking carnivalesque figures, is the version of ‘reality’ that seems the most convincing to the viewer and which has the most substance here; dominance and submissiveness, deferred sexual longing and guilt haunt its twisted narrow lanes and squares, while the power dynamic of master and servant appears elusive but ever present as it perpetually slips the tethers of sustained identity.


This new 4K restored version makes the film seem even more vivid and present to the eye of the modern viewer: it’s a thing of dark beguiling beauty, with every possible original detail of the movie now plainly set before us in vivid colour tinted detail, allowing this familiar old classic to appear fully renewed for a modern viewership. Kalat’s commentary on the origins of the movie is augmented by an intelligent 52 minute German language documentary entitled Caligari: The Birth of Horror in the First World War; while critic David Cairns contributes a witty assessment and interpretation in his specially recorded video essay (23 mins). A restoration comparison is also included, and the two-disc package comes with the usual exhaustive 44-page booklet with new writing, reprints and rare archive imagery. This Limited Edition Steelbook contains an exclusive second Blu-ray disc dedicated to the fascinating two hour documentary From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses. This essentially uses Siegfried Kracauser’s thesis (challenged in some of the other extras on the disc) as a springboard for a detailed examination of the film culture of Weimar Germany, extending beyond the examples of Expressionist cinema to include a look at movements such as The New Sobriety and even Germany’s early anticipation of neo-realist cinema. With its stunning, archival imagery of Berlin in the 1920s, this is also a potted history of German film criticism and the intellectual climate prevalent outside the German picture houses of the day. How much credence one should give the Kracauser thesis is still debatable but the documentary provides a fairly decent overview of the critic’s Frankfurt School-influenced line of thinking, and features enough tantalising HD clips from many German silent classics (many of them, particularly the Fritz Lang and Murnau films, are also available in the Masters of Cinema series, but plenty of others still await release) to make this an utterly beguiling watch. That Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari continues to be an essential mainstay of any horror fan’s collection need hardly be stated, but this beautiful edition also puts the film into historical context while presenting a tinted transfer that reveals how modern and captivating Robert Weine’s best known film still is. A must-have new edition.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)

The classic 1980s horror comedy Fright Night, recently released in the UK on an extras-stuffed 4K digital restoration Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment, was actor-turned-screenwriter (and future Child’s Play director) Tom Holland’s striking debut behind the camera. Appearing mid-decade, at a time when the traditional monster-centred horror movies of the 1930s Universal cycle and their full-colour British Hammer reformulations of the late ‘50s and 1960s, had been fully integrated into cultural life as quaint cliques from the past, with modern audiences now acclimatised to the era of  Slasher movies, Holland came up with a concept that minted a cult classic for those of us of a slightly younger generation, who had come of age discovering these older films on TV in the 1970s. For Fright Night gave vent to a nostalgic reverence for tropes and themes derived from the classic Hammer Horror Pictures and their AIP cousins, at the very moment when these movies were being marginalised by a dismissive popular culture which had already relegated them to airtime-filling, end-of-the-week TV horror marathons, where they were a source of cheap programming for independent local channels. However, in the States, these Friday night horror jamborees also furnished a lot of old movies with a second home, where they could be discovered afresh by a whole new audience of insomniac children and partied out adolescents. Similar late-night screenings were also available to those of us who resided in the UK -- where such films were a staple, for instance, of the BBC’s fondly remembered Saturday night Horror double-bill seasons.

Part of the reason Fright Night has remained such a beloved icon of ‘80s cinema ever since lies in the appeal this film has for those of us who now realise that it actually provides us with a double-dose of nostalgia: for if you were just entering into the adolescent stage of life during the ‘80s, having loved the classics Holland was paying tribute to from seeing them on TV at a formative age of your childhood back in the 1970s, then you will doubtless also now be looking back on the 1980s and associating the styles, the music, the imagery, the aesthetics and the physical effects-orientated horror cinema of the decade with the same moment of adolescent awakening that inspired Holland to create this charming, funny (and often still scary) tribute to the Vincent Price and Peter Cushing films of his own early experience. Realising those older movies must have assumed a similar totemic status in Holland’s adolescent development as Fright Night came to have in many of ours, then, lends the film a whole extra level of resonance, and galvanises an even acuter awareness of its thematic cleverness. 

Some other major reasons why the film still commands such adoration and respect have to do with its intelligent choice of casting, and with Holland’s utilisation of the talent he employed in helping to re-contextualise some of the generic ideas predominating in past adoptions of the figure of the vampire, along with all its particular usages and meanings in classic horror cinema. The traditional cultural motifs that relate to the Vampire mythos are successfully packaged within an utterly commercial, contemporary Hollywood coming-of-age comedy drama with maximum mainstream appeal, where they now function as an updated 1980s spin on those same socio-political and sexual subtexts which had always previously historically provided the vampire with its latent purpose in literature and film -- by extension also becoming a self-reflexive meta commentary on these motifs at the same time. The story has a deceptively simple construction that initially riffs off an idea inspired by Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but which is threaded through with reflexive attitudes that recognise the tension existing in the horror genre’s ability to, on the one hand celebrate the Outsider, and provide succour for those who do not relate so easily to mainstream culture; whilst, at the same time, it ruthlessly exploits a heteronormative society’s inherent fear of the Other so as to create the mainstream appeal for itself that is always necessary to allow any film to become a major hit.


In its basic plot outline Fright Night employs an initial approach to narrative that is not so very different from the template which informed many of the Hitchcockian thrillers Jimmy Sangster scripted for Hammer Studios in the early-sixties and beyond, and which Holland was himself perhaps unconsciously evoking in an earlier screenplay he had written, called Scream for Help. This had previously been made into a 1984 film directed by Michael Winner, which Holland had been so dissatisfied with at the time that it made him determined to seek out the freedom to direct his own work, which he finally was able to acquire after the box office success Psycho II, for which Holland had written the screenplay. In the kinds of scenarios encountered within this sub-type of thriller, the protagonist invariably finds his- or herself being tormented by someone whom they either believe to be a murderer, or whose existence is doubted by almost everybody else in the film apart from them. In Fright Night the adolescent hero, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), becomes convinced that the handsome, immaculately groomed and apparently respectable yuppie property developer neighbour who looks like a model for GQ magazine and has just moved in to the house next door, is in fact a real-life vampire. His best friend, his girlfriend and his mother don’t believe him, and neither do the police; so Charley must turn to the only person he presumes still has the skills necessary for helping him deal with this unacknowledged threat to the community: a washed up ham actor who once appeared under the name Peter Vincent - “Vampire Killer” (Roddy McDowell), when he had been the star of a series of horror movies made in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but who now hosts the Friday night horror marathons playing endless reruns late at night of what are now considered old-fashioned, semi-forgotten pictures. Fine casting, noteworthy performances and brilliant but economical writing and story construction that furnish the movie with a sympathetic group of characters are the elements behind Fright Night’s ultimate success, both as an artistic venture and commercially.  These are virtues that also create in the movie enough ambiguity to accommodate the many possible readings and interpretations the above outline is capable of generating, nimbly avoiding any danger that the screenplay might trip itself up in the tangle of excessive archness that could’ve been one unintended result of such a finely wrought line it constantly has to negotiate, between homage to the old and satire of the new. The film demonstrates an airy efficiency in leaving the impression of there being nothing to its unaffected insouciance but the glossy façade of outlandish ‘80s FX spectacle and broadly sketched character-based comedy; but a closer look reveals layers of possible metaphoric meaning and subtext, and attendant commentary on that metaphoric meaning and subtext. 


The opening scene sets in motion a meticulously crafted interplay of elements that can be seen to be the key to understanding much of what the rest of the film is up to, setting up all the references and thematic pointers that are to be challenged, transformed or re-imagined throughout the rest of the picture, as Holland sets about adapting the vampire figure to his new but familiar modern surroundings ... as part of the culture of Ronald Regan’s America in the 1980s. The opening image is a matte shot depicting a full moon, with a thin animated ribbon of dark cloud passing across it while a piercing, baleful wolf’s howl can be heard on the audio track. This image and sound combination establishes, in the most efficient manner possible, the milieu of the traditional classic Horror movie, putting one immediately in mind of the period monsters of the ‘30s Universal Horror cycle. Yet the camera immediately pans down to what we can instantly discern to be a very modern, crowded cityscape visible in the distance, displaying its panoramic vista of neon-lit buildings. As the opening credits are shown on screen the camera moves slowly in a 180 degree arc, past an old, ruined, rather decrepit-looking house in the immediate foreground, and coming to settle on a more homely looking modern residence sited just across the road from this traditional creepy ‘haunted’ mansion -- a house encircled by a white picket fence and that has an apple tree in its garden. During this sequence, the wolf’s howl, which had been the very first sound we heard as the film commenced, is immediately followed by hushed voices that form the impression that a seduction scene is playing out somewhere close by between a man and a woman, who we assume to be outside somewhere in the dark, although neither is visible to us in shot at this point. The male voice seems hesitant -- perhaps unnerved by the inhuman wail that has just reverberated through the depths of the inky darkness; but the sultry female voice now declares aloud how it loves the night, which prompts her male companion to make a declaration of his own, equally heartfelt, appreciation of her physical beauty, particularly the qualities of her ‘pale skin and red lips’. The musical accompaniment at this point sounds like (and probably is) a typical James Bernard cue taken from any number of old Hammer Horror flicks -- although one short, solitary staccato bass synth stab interrupts it for a few seconds when the film’s title, Fright Night, finally announces itself on screen, demonstrating through audio cues alone how the old and the ‘new’ are to be employed in such a way as to form a dialogue between them -- one that takes place throughout the rest of the picture -- and that comments on and enhances our appreciation of both.

As the unseen lovers kiss noisily at the female seductress’s invitation, the camera moves forward slowly, towards the house, with a slight unsteadiness about it that subtly suggests we are witnessing a point-of-view shot which perhaps allows us to see things from a potential killer’s perspective. This has the effect of switching our understanding of  exactly what it is we are watching for the second time in just a few short moments -- almost without our being aware of the fact -- and the scene now feels more like the generic opening to one of the countless numbers of slasher movies which had taken a hold on the horror genre sometime in the early 1980s. The blue lighting in particular, indicating moonlight falling on the white slats across the exterior of the house we are de facto stalking, brings to mind the opening shots of John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween

But then the camera starts rising above ground level, and gliding towards an open upstairs window at the side of the house – and we finally realise that the conversation we have been listening to is in fact emanating from a TV that is screening an old horror film being watched in someone’s bedroom. This glide towards an open window, followed by a dissolve into the room beyond it, echoes the opening shot construction of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – arguably the bridge between the classic and the modern era in Horror, as it could be considered the film that laid out the guidelines for the early slasher movies. It therefore acts as an appropriate reference in Fright Night’s armoury of sources, given the then-recent and unexpected success of Richard Franklin’s Psycho sequel, which had brought Anthony Perkins back to the career-making role of Norman Bates twenty-three years after he had first played it in the Hitchcock classic. This was the vehicle that had given Tom Holland the industry leverage to be able to insist on directing Fright Night rather than settling for the role of being its screenwriter. It had been his script for Psycho II that had successfully managed to negotiate the minefield of problems involved in bringing back the character of Norman Bates after so long, and attempting to continue a story that had by now passed into screen legend. 

The images from the old film that we can now see on the TV screen in the upstairs bedroom, however, are clearly not from a modern slasher picture or any of its forbears: they belong to the same ilk as those early-sixties Hammer films; and the moon-lit seduction we thought we were listening to beforehand turns out to belong in a scene set in a Victorian period drawing room, that dramatizes a female vampire engaged in the act of sexually hypnotising her hapless male victim into willingly offering her his neck! Luckily a dynamic young “vampire killer” happens to be on hand, dressed in cloak and tweed suit that lend him the air of a character modelled on a combination Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing from Hammer’s films Dracula (aka The Horror of Dracula) and The Brides of Dracula, and the same British actor’s version of Sherlock Holmes, who he portrayed both in the Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles and in a BBC series of TV adaptations, broadcast in the late-sixties.


In his critical study of the British Horror film, Hammer and Beyond, Peter Hutchings made a strong case for interpreting Hammer’s output during its prime-period, between 1957 and 1965, as an unconscious reflection of the social and cultural upheavals then afoot in post-war Britain. In adapting the classic literary narratives of Dracula and Frankenstein (and others from the Universal cannon, such as The Mummy), it transformed them through sub-textual linkage to a number of apparently unconnected contemporary issues in 1950s Britain, such as the post-war rise of the professional classes and changing notions of gender identity. Its on-screen representations of masculine authority are enacted against a backdrop in which the dissolution of Empire challenges traditional notions of patriarchal power. Hammer films of the period are consequently full of ‘weak men’ who find themselves threatened by powerful authority figures associated with the forces of the abject.

Dracula is the classic example of this motif in action: instead of the alien ‘threat’ that comes skulking in the night from foreign lands to ‘steal’ our women away in their sleep, a template that Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula represented in Universal’s interpretation of Bram Stoker’s novel, many Hammer films play out as metaphorical oedipal dramas, with Christopher Lee’s Dracula donning the mantle of dynamic, urbane, impeccably well-spoken ‘English’ gent, overpowering the listless, weak-spirited Victorian class of gentleman otherwise found populating the Hammer universe. This element of Dracula’s forceful dominating character positions him in relation to his male adversaries as a tyrannical rival father figure and, from the perspective of their wives, as an inviting sexual proposition who possesses irresistible sexual magnetism which threatens their participation in the system of Victorian patriarchy that has previously accommodated them comfortably in the role of ‘angel of the house’, where maternal aspects of their femininity are emphasised and any overt expressions of feminine sexuality are marginalised. Naturally, this threat to gender roles and traditional masculine constructions of identity has to be countered and neutralised in order to preserve the status quo; but to do this, the weaker males have to call upon another dynamic ‘father figure’ – a member of the newly emerged professional middle-classes, who has assumed his position through expertise rather than by way of traditional class-based systems of inheritance that have shown themselves prone to decay in the guise of Dracula.

In Hutchings’s formulation, a wooden stake, dropped during a botched attempt to kill Dracula, or the bloody neck of one of his vampirised male victims, are both symbolic Freudian images representing male castration anxiety. Hutchings claims that in Hammer’s Dracula “masculinity is (always) seen [ ] as arrested, in a permanently weakened state”; and it needs a powerful father figure who will continue to act as a “guarantor of the patriarchal system”. In the Hammer universe, this father figure is, of course, best represented by the equally sophisticated personage of Peter Cushing -- or rather the character he often plays: the vampire hunter Van Helsing.

In light of this reading, it’s interesting to look at Holland’s satirical version of the Hammer formula, depicted throughout Fright Night in the frequent cutaways to TV screens that feature mostly mocked up versions of Hammer-like films, before we move on to look at how the style of Hammer movies in general inform other important aspects of Fright Night’s narrative and content. The mini-drama we see at the start of the picture, featuring the female vampire and her hapless male victim being fatally interrupted by a Van Helsing figure played by Roddy McDowell, has not been constructed merely to faithfully mimic the appearance and tone of a classic Hammer Gothic picture out of reverence: rather, Holland’s little faux Hammer play-let works inside the film’s particular reference system of signifiers by exploiting for a purpose the then-common assumption that these films were cheap, dated, somewhat shoddy and poorly acted melodramas, with Holland at first seemingly deliberately playing to that very prejudice, which is likely to be shared by a large percentage of the audience, in having his mock Hammer scenes look ridiculous and somewhat stilted and laboured -- when it is his ultimate intention to unveil them later as an interpretive texts that retain much of value and relevance  when it comes to decoding and understanding modernity. 


Since the late-sixties, when the New Hollywood film directors became the heirs to a moribund studio system, classic Horror films of the Gothic persuasion were viewed as nothing but creaky, old-fashioned, and certainly not very scary, exemplars of a bygone era; Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets articulated this notion when it actually cast its  contracted aging horror star Boris Karloff as exactly that: an aging horror star -- clearly intended to be perceived as though Boris Karloff were playing himself for the role. This was a means of disparaging his style of Horror movie as irrelevant and pointless when it was set alongside the true-life horrors then assailing the modern world, such as the random sniper shootings that are portrayed in the film. The representation of horror movies from the sixties and seventies has several functions in Fright Night: in the first (and arguably most important) instance, it provides a chance to inject some straight-forward physical comedy into the movie at the start, of a kind that many viewers unfamiliar with the horror genre might find easy to relate to: the exaggerated wooden acting that we see in these faux movie scenes on TV might be unrepresentative of the best that the genre had to offer, but it fairly accurately sums up the feeling that many people had about such pictures at the time, which was informed by the perception that the actors who regularly starred in them, such as Vincent Price (who appeared in many Hammer-like AIP pictures of the day, most notably the Roger Corman Poe series, some of which were made in the UK), were ‘ham actors.’ 

Notably, the scene we see playing out on the TV in Charley Brewster’s bedroom at the start of Fright Night turns out to be occurring at the same time he himself is ‘making out’ with his high-school girlfriend Amy Peterson (Amanda Bearse). It culminates with a joke that on one level works as an indictment of the presumed amateurishness and camp corniness of the genre, in which McDowell’s vampire hunter, though apparently caught in his youthful prime in this sixties period movie, interrupts the female vampire’s intended seduction by bounding into shot clutching a wooden stake above his head that is being held, very conspicuously, the wrong way round for achieving its intended purpose -- with the sharpened point facing away from his quarry! If we remind ourselves of the Freudian interpretation of this aspect of the vampire mythology, discussed above in the critique of Peter Hutchings, then we can see how the same ideas are now being used again here, this time to suggest the impotent and ineffective nature of the films themselves when they are placed in a modern context and considered alongside their then-current rivals. Equally, whereas the original Hammer films positioned figures such as Van Helsing as representatives of a modern vision of masculinity that ‘50s audiences could identify with in a post-war context, depicting the professional middle-classes displacing old money and the idle aristocracy through hard-won expertise, now that vision comes to look itself equally old-fashioned and déclassé when set in opposition to the conspicuous wealth of the Wall Street mavens running the show in the Yuppie culture of ‘80s corporate America -- the backdrop for Fright Night

As the ostensible hero and identification figure in Fright Night, Charley Brewster occupies an uncertain liminal zone situated between these two opposing worlds, which the movie equates with the equally potent struggle that takes place in many coming of age narratives between adolescence and adulthood, where innocence intersects with the turmoil of sexual awakening; this conflation allows the ‘hamminess’ of Peter Vincent’s horror flicks to also function within the film’s frame of reference as a symbol of Brewster’s sexual awkwardness and inexperience, so lending the film credence as a modern American coming-of-age parable. These old Peter Vincent movies are a beloved part of Brewster’s childhood, but they seemingly must be relinquished in order for him to be able to grow and advance into the next stage of adulthood. In other words, his continuing identification with and love for these old-style horror films is mooted, at least at first, as a sign of his arrested development, as indicated by the content of that first TV scene, screened during his and Amy’s tryst in Brewster’s bedroom: the hero vampire hunter, looking younger than we will later see him because this scene captures Vincent at the height of his fame, interrupting a female vampire’s attempted seduction of an unwitting and utterly hapless male.

As played by William Ragsdale, Brewster straddles the bridge between the typical good-looking youthful heroes encountered in many other ‘80s teen movies -- who were intended to be role models, espousing Regan-era core values that young adult male theatre-goers could aspire to emulate -- and being the slightly gawky misfit outsider rejected by the mainstream. The young Charlie Sheen originally tested for the role of Charley Brewster but was famously passed over by Holland for being just too handsome for the role. This is sometimes characterised as a missed opportunity on his part, but the director wanted someone who had a screen presence that projected surface likability as well as the sense of ordinariness, in the heightened sense, that saw contemporary teen comedy-drama ‘heroes’ such as Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller attain a cult status after the release of the following year’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But he also wanted a young actor who could fulfil a second function: portraying a character who was slightly misplaced and out of step with the world around him, and who was therefore still able to discern value in the cultural ephemera of another age; someone who could represent a youthful figure who was able to look beyond the limited horizons offered by the contemporary consumerist zeitgeist.

This places Fright Night in an interesting space with regard to the extent to which it adopts a form that celebrates many elements and characteristics of the wider cinema of its era, while at the same time harshly critiquing certain aspects during a decade that was largely defined by the social and economic politics of Reaganomics, which so often found expression in popular entertainment of the day by replicating the contradiction inherent in the foregrounding of a consumer-based hedonism that runs parallel to the promotion of socially conservative family values. While it sets up a dynamic that allows the film to appear on the surface to favourably compare its own genre sophistication and post-modern knowingness to the callow naiveté of the horror movies of the past, Fright Night is in fact re-deploying the symbolisms and metaphors of 1960s Horror in a manner calculated to vindicate them as potent weapons in the struggle to recognise and defeat the evils of its own age … and yet it cannot completely escape the implication that its attitudes to sexuality are still in many respects largely in accord with those of the past.


In the opening scene it is Amy, at this point still uncertain about just how far she wishes to pursue the couple’s tentative encounter in the bedroom, who attempts to distract Brewster by pointing out that ‘his hero’, Peter Vincent, has just appeared on the TV in the corner of the room. It’s as though she hopes this perennial symbol of her boyfriend’s childhood obsessions might act as a safety valve in this moment, diverting attention away from the adult urges that are threatening to take her beyond the level of sexual experience that she feels comfortable with at this point in the relationship. But the dynamic very quickly shifts into reverse when Brewster suddenly does become distracted, not by what’s on TV, but from the activity he glimpses going on outside his bedroom window – or, more specifically, in the garden of the old house opposite. This shift very noticeably happens as soon as Amy tries to take some element of control of the romantic situation, becoming more proactive in the proceedings, probably as a means of challenging her own sexual reticence but producing the secondary result of destabilising Brewster’s attempt to adopt the traditional masculine role of seducer. What Brewster is seeing outside at this point begins to echo the images that are at that very moment being broadcast on his TV, which belong to a funeral sequence taken from Roger Corman’s film Premature Burial. The more Amy attempts to refocus Brewster’s attention on her, the more engrossed he becomes in the strange tableaux taking place outside involving the Brewsters’ new neighbour Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), who is shifting a coffin into the basement of his house with the help of live-in assistant Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark). Amy is eventually pushed by Brewster’s inattention into taking the plunge and offering herself completely, removing her top as she waits for him in the bed, only to find that Brewster has by this point actually seized a pair of binoculars and is avidly staring, with comically voyeuristic intensity, outside -- utterly transfixed by the strange scene in his neighbour’s garden!


Here, the old ‘joke’ prejudice that disparagingly casts the average male horror fan as virginal and immature -- always looking but never doing -- is being seized upon once again, but this time in order to instigate a reversal of the expected norms: Brewster’s horror movie obsession actually makes him more attuned to what’s really going on in the surrounding neighbourhood, not less so. Precisely because he is unable to function unambiguously in an adult role, he’s enabled to see the significance of truths that no-one else can see. Later in the movie, having become intensely suspicious of Dandrige and Cole, Brewster will use the binoculars again to try to spy on current activity going on within the house; at first he watches with anticipatory excitement as Dandrige’s female guest disrobes in front of the upstairs bedroom window opposite his own, only for that excitement to turn to horror as Dandrige appears behind her displaying his vampire fangs, and  bites her on the neck -- thus confirming his status as a true-life vampire, and making Brewster the only other person in existence who knows about it. On the one hand Brewster’s retarded social development is being confirmed to the viewer, for, as we had earlier seen, he was markedly uninterested in his own girlfriend undressing and presenting herself to him with no strings attached, despite this meaning the avoidance of the usual ‘struggle’ to achieve such a goal that constitutes a common sexual rites-of-passage motif in most ‘coming-of-age’ narratives; but this development also bestows upon Brewster a special knowledge of the nature of reality that, it turns out, only a classic horror movie fan like himself could truly ever be in a position to understand. 

The trouble is, Jerry Dandrige also embodies everything that mainstream ‘80s society considers to be aesthetically, socially, culturally and financially laudable. Even though Dracula, as played by Christopher Lee in the Hammer films of the late ‘50s and 1960s, represented an exploitative, aristocratic, autocratic class of feudal power leeching off of the blood and wealth of his surroundings, Lee’s noble bearing made the character seem perfectly adapted to the task of fitting in socially with, and being fully accepted among, the respectable Victorian society on which he largely preys outside of his castle dwelling. It took a resolutely modern and socially adept representative of Victorian masculinity – Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing – to recognise the true threat Dracula posed to Victorian morality and to the maintenance of its values and social codes, through the vampire’s ability to insinuate himself undetected so easefully into 19th century society. The situation is slightly different in Fright Night. Like Lee’s Dracula, the astutely cast Chris Sarandon is able to represent someone who is easily accepted by all those around him as an exemplary representative of contemporary society, despite the character of Jerry Dandrige being at least several hundred years old. He has the requisite masculine charm and sophistication, of course -- as well as the looks, framed within perfectly coiffured hair; when they’re required, he also has the expensive designer clothes that fit the successful ‘80s yuppie mould to a tee (although he also does ‘casual’ woolly ‘Cosby’ jumpers when wishing to appear more domestic). No-one is going to believe, then, that this charismatic, money-making, go-getter property developer, who exemplifies an aspirational ethos and the desirability of all that money-orientated ‘80s culture so lionises, is also an evil vampire. Brewster’s dilemma throughout the first part of the film hinges on the fact that Dandrige is so perfect a symbol for the times that there is really no prospect of an equivalent authority figure emerging, Van Helsing-like from inside the culture, to oppose him and restore the ‘proper’ order of things, since there can be no truer representative of that order than Dandrige himself! The implication is that the yuppie culture that Dandrige so comprehensively represents is itself intrinsically hollow and false and vampire-like in its destructive effects, despite its seductiveness. Dandrige is, in effect, the perfect vain, venal emblem of this predatory age. Hiding in plain sight, he disguises himself completely by not having to hide at all. Who can oppose or even recognise such a threat … other than an opponent who is not entirely tuned in to the ethos of his own times to begin with?


That opponent will of course eventually turn out to be Roddy McDowell’s Peter Vincent.

Charlie Brewster, meanwhile, is the only child of a one parent household that conspicuously lacks any sort of patriarch. In having Brewster turn to Vincent for help, believing the aging star to be the only person possibly capable of understanding the situation he now faces, the pretend vampire hunter is being positioned within the narrative as a replacement father figure for Charlie. In his movies Vincent assumes the authoritative mantle Peter Cushing once donned for many a Hammer picture, but, as we have previously seen, Fright Night starts by apparently confirming the outmoded nature of that form of male cultural authority, which is reduced to joke status in a world that has left behind the mores of the society that spawned it. Dandrige’s ascent as the model man for ‘today’s’ new society means that he now becomes the most likely source of fatherly values offered in a culture that worships money and image above all else. One of the film’s early highlights occurs soon after Brewster realises that Dandrige now knows that he has been able to glean the details of his secret life as a vampire: terrified, Brewster asks his misfit best friend ‘Evil’ Ed Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys) what he can do to protect himself at home from his menacing undead neighbour. Ed confidently promises Brewster that he is completely safe because vampires have to be invited inside someone’s house before they’re able to cross the threshold. Relieved and reassured, Brewster returns home – only to find a grinning Dandrige already seated in the front room, having been recently invited in by Brewster’s welcoming neighbourly mom (Dorothy Fielding). She finds her single neighbour hugely attractive as he seems to be the perfect gentleman; earlier she even forlornly regrets the fact that Dandrige is ‘probably gay’ -- something she considers likely after hearing he has Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) living with him as a ‘handyman’. This comment suggests she wouldn’t have minded Dandrige becoming Brewster’s stepfather given half a chance!


 The relationship between Brewster and Dandrige, then, has several aspects to it, that, taken together, characterise it as a perversely oedipal brew that echoes the subtext to traditional Hammer horror movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, in which Dracula and Van Helsing are pitted against each-other as competing forces in the battle for Victorian masculinity. Here, though, the oedipal motif has been transmogrified by the ‘coming of age’ aspects of the Fright Night narrative: on the one hand, as a respected pillar of the suburban neighbourhood, Dandrige is being offered as an exemplary role model for the younger generation; his wealth, his standing, the succession of model-gorgeous women Brewster sees entering Dandrige’s house, add up to a lifestyle that sets up the yuppie vampire to be everything adult mainstream society in the 1980s offers as a role model to young adolescents like Brewster, and which is normally celebrated elsewhere throughout popular ‘80s Hollywood cinema.

But when he spies on Dandrige, and witnesses an erotic encounter that turns into a vampire attack upon one of Dandrige’s many female ‘guests’, Brewster is instantly being reminded of his childhood hero Peter Vincent’s righteous battles against the destabilising sexual force the vampire most of all represents in those fables, and the threat he/she poses to the foundation of, not just societal norms, but to one’s own personal morality. Thus, the battle for influence over Brewster between his two competing father figures, and the internal conflict it promotes between Brewster’s tentative desire to enter the adult world and take on the challenges of a full sexual relationship, and the competing urge to retreat into a permanent state of adolescence and childish concerns -- can also be interpreted as a metaphorical struggle for the soul of mainstream conservative American society in the 1980s. Dandrige is a personification of the dream of the yuppie lifestyle made possible by the economic deregulation unleashed during the Regan era; but the ‘80s’ deification of greed as an animating principle and the consumerist incontinence it promotes, stand in sharp contrast to the modest, hard-working, disciplined nature of an older model of male conservatism represented by the moral probity of someone like Peter Vincent.

More pertinently, the new monetarist principles of the Right, ironically, consolidate the sexual freedoms of the ‘60s and ‘70s through a money-fuelled form of hedonism that runs contrary to everything Conservatism had always tried to represent throughout those former decades. Fright Night, then, is to a large extent a narrative about the crisis in mainstream Conservative culture of the 1980s, and  how the flavour of its economic ‘successes’ had seemed to create a threat to its own survival in licensing a form of what was, even from its own perspective, a moral ‘degeneration’. This becomes even more apparent as a theme in relation to the film’s treatment of Brewster’s girlfriend Amy, and his best friend ‘Evil’ Ed, and how they are both ‘corrupted’ by the trio’s dealings with Dandrige.

Neither Amy nor Ed’s childhoods seem to have been as steeped in the motifs of the Horror genre as Brewster’s was, and, even more crucially, neither witnesses the suspicious activities that first alert the latter to Dandrige’s  true identity. As played by former soap star Amanda Bearse (who went on to even more fame in the US when she was made a regular on the long-running sitcom Married with Children) Amy’s character constitutes a sympathetic portrait of burgeoning teenage female sexuality, mixing coyness and innocence with tentative curiosity about these aspects of the adult world; a sensibility beautifully summed up in the opening scene, discussed above.


A key moment of reckoning occurs midway into the film, when Brewster has managed to persuade Peter Vincent that his suspicions were right and that Jerry Dandrige is a bona fide vampire: at last Brewster and Vincent are as one, but it is at this point that Brewster’s relationship with Dandrige undergoes a transformation. Up until now, Dandrige has always threatened Brewster by presenting himself as a malevolent replacement father, who, once having received his invitation to do so, invades the Brewster home and taunts the youngster with the possibility of vampirising his mother and threatening to murder Brewster in his own bed. Now that Peter Vincent has won the father role, Jerry's focus shifts onto becoming a threat to Brewster's relationship with Amy, and, with Brewster having now vacated the field in terms of his duties as her boyfriend, so to speak, in order to concentrate his attentions on defeating the vampire menace with Peter Vincent, Jerry Dandrige offers himself as an object of sexual curiosity to Amy -- tempting her away from the innocent fumbling that once characterised her tentative teenage encounters with sex, with the promise of the chance to fully embrace an adult experience of sexuality that will catapult her into full womanhood.


Dandrige’s seduction of Amy takes place on the dancefloor of a trendy neon night club called Club Radio, as it pumps out a selection of ‘new wave’ synth band hits in a scene that couldn’t feel more ‘80s from today’s perspective if it had actually been trying to predict how the decade would be portrayed in future years. This gaudy, image-conscious, contemporary moneyed lifestyle-orientated  environment replaces the traditional Gothic decay of once-grand castles and abbeys now-gone-to-seed as the natural home of the modern vampire; during the course of a dance scene cleverly choreographed to convey Amy’s awakening as a woman who is realising the potential of desires she’s finally willing to indulge without shame, Amanda Bearse’s makeup and hair are transformed in order to make her look older and therefore closer to the actresses true age, and her dress changes from cotton to a sexy silk. Most tellingly, Amy takes the lead in the dance with Dandrige; the entire sequence slanted to play very much as a model of positive female sexual empowerment. Dandrige does not bite Amy up to this point, so the entire flirtation appears to take place at her discretion, making it tempting to interpret it at face value as a feminist update of the vampire mythos in which female agency defeats the intent of a patriarchal form of vampirism. 


When Brewster and Peter Vincent track Dandrige back to his house for the film’s climactic confrontation during the duo’s attempt to rescue Amy and put the vampire and his human helper out of commission permanently, Amy suddenly develops the attributes of a much older-looking ‘femme fatale’ seductress, much like the type Peter Vincent’s old movies warned Brewster to be wary of at the start of the film. Because she has been corrupted by a vampire curse taking the form of a bastion of 1980’s culture of consumption and greed, Amy’s femininity and her newfound sense of agency become to the male heroes of the film, quite literally monstrous: in one of the more memorable moments during the SFX-laden climax, Brewster attempts to comfort a sobbing Amy who appears to have fought off the influence of her vampire ‘maker’ during the finale  in the cellar of Dandrige’s house, only to find that her entire face has become distorted by a huge, hideous gaping and grinning mouth that’s set to swallow and consume him whole. The image was so potent that it was used prominently on the theatrical poster, meaning a supporting character, Amy Peters, replaced the ostensible leads, Peter Vincent and Jerry Dandrige, as the primary focus of the marketing campaign for the film. Amy is restored to her former ‘virgin’ youthfulness by the end of the movie of course. When Dandrige is destroyed, his disappearance results in Amy’s pre-adult teenage self being miraculously re-established – a victory for the conservative establishment, which has in effect removed the liberating aspects of modern consumer culture it disliked and retained and re-entrenched the judgemental moral traditionalism. 


Originally, Holland had intended to sound a note of caution here by having it revealed at the very last moment that Peter Vincent had himself become a vampire during the final confrontation with Dandrige, which would have set up the idea that the cure was as bad as the illness and that the ideology of conservatism was innately prone to creeping corruption. Instead, he was forced by producers to modify the script with a less ‘gloomy’ conclusion, using a ‘sting’ which sees Brewster’s crazy best friend Evil Ed somehow illogically once again returning in vampire form to taunt his best friend, even though he was earlier pretty conclusively seen in great detail being killed off after attacking Vincent in Brewster’s home.


Interestingly, this conclusion plays as an upbeat, positive end to the film, even though Evil Ed is still a vampire, who has now replaced Dandrige as the owner of the house across the street and is, presumably, still a potential threat to the health of his friends. Evil Ed is such an attractive, fun, lovable character (thanks mainly to the idiosyncratic performance choices of actor Stephen Geoffreys, who played him) that we cannot help being glad to see that he is still around after all in the final moments of the film, even if he is still a grotesque vampire creature!

By introducing the possibility of a sympathetic vampire character whose positive human attributes are still discernible, Tom Holland is able to undercut some of the more reactionary tendencies suggested by the material. Evil Ed is the comedy focal point of the film for much of its run-time; he really is such a bizarre, way out creation -- with his eccentric mannerisms, odd vocal inflections and shrieking laugh – he comes across like an impish, hyperactive hyena. Geoffreys’ performance makes him the movie’s sympathetic outsider, and, interestingly, as the film progresses, and despite the recurring ‘joke’ about Dandrige’s Renfield-like live-in human follower having a homosexual relationship with his master, it is Ed who comes to be seen as a sort of surrogate for queerness, walking about hand-in-hand with Amy throughout the picture without there being the slightest inkling of a sexual frisson existing between them (Brewster certainly doesn’t see any rivalry there; and never seems remotely bothered by Ed’s close relationship with Amy, as they come across when they’re together like two mischevious girlfriends); in fact, at one point Evil Ed pretends to have been bitten by Dandrige just so that he can make a joke about giving Brewster a ‘hickey’ on the neck!  When Dandrige finally does catch up with Ed, though, he sooths him into accepting his fate, reassuring him by saying if he accepts Dandrige’s vampire lifestyle he will never be picked on for being ‘different’, or feel left out, again. 

Later, as Peter Vincent encounters the vampirised Evil Ed for a second time after earlier having been attacked in his apartment, he finds Vampire Ed hiding in Brewster’s mother’s bed -- now wearing a garish red wig and behaving as though in drag! The merry-go-round of reconfigured relationships that sees Dandrige, during the course of the picture, being both father figure and trendy love rival to Brewster, receives a further twist when Brewster’s best friend now attempts to replace his mother: Ed even gets into the role play by shrieking at Vincent how he should remember to tell Brewster that, “his tea is in the oven!”

Having the vampire Ed return at the end becomes a positive though, when we remember the protracted death scene that this character, associated strongly with the attribute of queerness, endures when he is staked by Peter Vincent, while in wolf form, using the leg of a chair in Brewster’s house -- and what that inevitably represents in a mid-‘80s film during a period when the gay community was still being ravaged by the AIDS virus: Evil Ed disintegrates slowly, and in great pain, before our eyes, in what is a uniquely distressing scene; it’s a reversal of a sequence from John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London which portrays the process of transforming from a man to a wolf as an agonising bout of body horror that involves the experience of one’s limbs and muscles stretching and contorting, and one’s bones bending and cracking. Ed’s death is even more horrific, as his body attempts, imperfectly, to take back its original human form as a consequence of being staked, but is only partially able to do so before his death -- resulting in a drawn-out process of decay that leaves a stricken, pleading, misshapen figure writhing on the floor of the Brewster house.

The film concludes on a note that seems to carry two meanings: on the one hand, as part of a traditional vampire narrative, it sounds a note of discord and menace that says that the vampire threat has not been eradicated after all, and that we must be ever vigilant against its re-emergence; but on the other hand a likable character is suddenly, magically, without any logical explanation, imagined back into existence just for the fun of it, in a manner that feels like a defiant rallying call of optimism against the odds during a cultural moment when prospects looked utterly bleak. This is just another instance of this film’s cunning mercurial ability to embody and reflect the competing urges of the epoch that gave it life. 


Previously released as a limited edition dual format Steelbook at the end of 2016, this UK 2-disc set from Eureka features a truly faultless transfer and retains the staggering mountain of extras that came with it, providing about five hours-worth of detailed commentary on the film. Only the booklet essay by Craig Ian Mann, which provided a convincing overview of the film’s social and political context and its subtext, is missing from the jewel case edition.

The original stereo PCM soundtrack and a 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track are the available audio options, and subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing are also available.

Heading up the extras pile is a comprehensive, two-hour making of documentary, You’re So Cool Brewster! Originally produced by Dead Mouse Productions after a Kickstarter campaign, this is actually an edited down version of the original documentary (which also covered the making of the sequel) and features extensive participation from the director and all of the surviving cast and crew members. There’s also a nearly one hour-long video piece featuring the Fright Night panel, filmed at the 2008 Fear Fest Reunion, and a collection of video interviews featuring Tom Holland on writing Horror, and Roddy McDowell and his amazingly varied Hollywood career. Choice Cuts is a three part interview with Holland, covering his entire career as a screenwriter and filmmaker; and there are several trailers and stills and memorabilia galleries.

Also included is the original and unedited electronic press kit – which is a 90 minute collection of materials in VHS form (tracking issues are rife) produced at the time of the film’s release, for media outlets to use in the construction of their promotional features. Much of its best archival material (interviews and behind-the-scenes footage) has also been reused in the other documentaries and featurettes to be found on this disc, but there are other nuggets here, such the original music video for the theme song, performed by the J. Geils Band; and a sardonic interview with the band’s lead singer and keyboard player Seth Justman -- his ‘80s big hair teased and sprayed to the max. It also includes an interview with special effects coordinator Richard Edlund, the Oscar winning effects technician behind films such as The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This home release isn’t likely to be bettered any time soon as it provides everything anyone new to the film might need to comprehensively get to grips with the thinking behind its creation, while collecting together in one place most of the extras that have ever been produced about it previously for the benefit of the collector and fan, setting them alongside an outstanding digital transfer that makes this thirty-year-old film feel fresh and brand spanking new. This is therefore an essential purchase.