A Dreadful Sound
In describing their mission, Not So Silent Cinema notes, “Some suffer from the delusion that the history of cinema is a straight-line of progress from primitive, clumsy beginnings to high-tech, modern perfection.” This ever-changing ensemble of musicians—helmed by Philadelphia-based composer Brendan Cooney—provide a much more engaging means of dispelling this delusion than streaming a classic to your computer. Performing new original scores to accompany silent film classics, they manage to invoke the manner in which these films were originally presented and bring a fresh perspective to material we may believe we already know well. This Halloween night, Not So Silent Cinema will perform their new score for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr live here at FringeArts. The film was the largely unheralded but supremely influential filmmaker’s only explicit foray into the world of horror and a watershed achievement for the genre and film itself.
Cooney’s scores in NSSC’s repertoire are always a diverse melange of musical styles, composed to fit the film’s aesthetic, but unafraid to add some modern experimentation. As he describes it, “This is not historical performance, but rather it’s historically evocative performance.” His score for Vampyr fits this bill perfectly. Imbued with an old-world, Eastern-European atmosphere, the music suits the gloomy environs we’ve come to associate with vampires, but additional electronic production gives it a dark, transcendental element that calls to mind the soundtrack work of later horror greats like John Carpenter. If that sounds a little bit disparate in theory, in practice it melds surprisingly well to the film’s evocative unraveling, paying respect to it’s context while also nodding to its legacy as a pioneering psychological horror film.
From the outset, Vampyr foregrounds its dreamlike reality by informing us that its protagonist—or rather, the audience’s on-screen surrogate—Allan Gray has, as of late, immersed himself so deeply in the world of the occult that the line between the real and imagined is no longer clearly defined. Within its opening minutes viewers are met with an onslaught of puzzling, unsettling images, including the iconic, potent sight of a scythe-wielding man lingering by a river as well as an assortment of shadows and reflections moving independent of their sources, if their sources are even present. Gray—played by the film’s co-producer, non-actor and later fashion taste-maker Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg—doesn’t so much interrogate all these surreal sightings as gawk in bewilderment at them, and we have little choice but to join him. It’s all quite impressionistic and experimental, even by today’s standards, and swiftly establishes the film’s hallucinatory style.
Dreyer believed that art had a personality, a soul that revealed itself through style. He was always meticulously intentional with the styles of his films, because, as he asserted, “Realism in itself is not art; it is only psychological or spiritual realism that is so. What has value is the artistic truth, i.e., the truth distilled from actual life but released from all unnecessary details—the truth filtered through an artist’s mind. What happens on the screen is not reality, and it cannot be so, because, if it were, it wouldn’t be art.” The world of Vampyr is clearly not grounded in reality, explicitly so, but through his style Dreyer is able to achieve this notion of psychological realism. Audiences who went to the theater expecting a more straightforward vampire narrative like the previous decade’s Nosferatu were disappointed to witness this much more oblique, unsettling film instead. Rather than scaring us through conventional storytelling means, Dreyer created an experience viewers were all too familiar with, that of a nightmare, with all the perplexing flights of the surreal that that implies. As a result, Vampyr was poorly received upon its release, set Dreyer’s career back several years, and led to a brief stint—of his own volition—in a Parisian clinic.
Despite its initial derision, Vampyr has gone on to influence countless filmmakers, but some of the biggest names among them are not intrinsically tied to the horror genre. Two major artists that spring to mind are Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch, auteurs adept at invoking the horrifying no doubt, but who are more often associated with psychological thrillers and surrealism, respectively, than straightforward horror. Much like Dreyer, both manage to prey on our most intrinsic fears without relying heavily or derivatively on monster tropes, jump scares, or excessive violence. They’re far more interested in building atmospheres of dread, worlds where evil is lurking all around us whether we can see it or not, and sound is integral in achieving this. You can’t think of Vertigo or Psycho without hearing bursts of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic soundtracks and earlier this year Lynch’s meticulous sound design for Twin Peaks‘ brilliant return season was placed under a microscope by obsessives seeking to unravel its absurdly enigmatic secrets. Few filmmakers take soundtracking as seriously as the latter, but his work reflects the degree to which sound and music can shape and guide our viewing experiences.
If the idea of re-scoring a film sounds blasphemous, you may be looking at it from the wrong perspective. Much like a theater company taking some artistic liberties with a classic play or a musician giving a wildly reinterpreted rendition of a classic song, NSSC is not attempting to correct any perceived shortcomings of the original scores. Instead, they’re offering audiences a chance to see old classics like Vampyr in an entirely new light. By reshaping our viewing experience in a pointed, reverent fashion their work provides audiences with an opportunity to deepen their appreciation and enjoyment of the work, and in this case, adds a refreshing new dash of dread.