Live Music for the Undead: Monday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I only went to one San Francisco International Film Festival event on Monday, and that was Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1932 classic, Vampyre, with musical accompaniment by Mercury Rev and Simon Raymonde. It was at the Castro.

Vampyre belongs on any list of great horror films. Todd Brown’s Dracula, made the previous year, is stagy and dull by comparison. And simplistic. In Vampyre, you’re not always sure who is a vampire and who isn’t. They aren’t sure themselves.

The story isn’t much, but the individual sequences are amazing. There’s the young woman attacked by a vampire who–in an extreme closeup–seems to look just a bit hungry as she watches her friend. And the funeral procession and burial, viewed from the point of view of the corpse–who is also the film’s hero and is still alive and walking about.

Most early talkies don’t get much beyond photographing people talking. But Vampyre feels very much like an expressionistic silent film, telling its story in pantomime, camera movement, special effects, and the written word. The dialog is scarce.

In Monday night’s presentation, we heard no dialog at all. The soundtrack was off, so as to not interfere with the musical accompaniment. The print (which I’m pretty sure was digital) had English subtitles, so we still knew what people were saying in the rare moments when they were saying anything.

But these subtitles didn’t describe sound effects. When the hero asks a man if he heard a dog barking, and the man claims not to have heard it, we tend to agree with the man, because we haven’t heard it either.

Mercury Rev’s score was loud, driving, powerful, percussion-heavy art rock. But it lacked subtlety and variety. Loving it at first, I found it boring by the end. Not every scene calls for thumping drums.

The experience made me want to see Vampyre again, this time with its original soundtrack. That shouldn’t be difficult. There are at least two streams of it on Youtube, and another on Hulu.

Note: I have altered the article, correcting some typos.