January 30th, 2012
by Mark Pembrey
Vampyr – Steve Severin event
Duke of York’s Picturehouse
Walking into a packed foyer, it was nice to see I wasn’t the only one excited by the prospect of Steve Severin, founder member of Siouxsie and the Banshees, performing a soundtrack for ‘Vampyr’ by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. It didn’t matter whether the majority of people were there as fans of the Severin, Dreyer or like me, both.
Siouxsie and the Banshees formed in the 70s, blending gothic atmosphere with punk energy and having a lasting influence on bands like The Cure and Cocteau Twins. Since leaving the band Severin has created a number of film scores, ‘Vampyr’ being the third in his ‘Music for Silents’ series following Dulac’s ‘The Seashell and The Clergyman’, and Cocteau’s ‘Blood of a Poet’. At the start of the screening Severin appears from the front row and sits at the edge of the stage, illuminated only by the screen of his laptop. It’s clear he’s there to provide the soundtrack without distracting from the film. A brooding ambient theme hangs over the opening credits, followed by a calm pulse as the wide-eyed Allan Grey enters onto the scene and we are drawn into the world of Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’.
Throughout his career Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) created staggeringly original films, from the intense ‘Passion of Joan of Arc’ in 1928 (given an equally intense live soundtrack by members of Portishead and Goldfrapp for last summer’s Brighton Festival) to the profound ‘Ordet’ in 1955. ‘Vampyr’ tells the story of Allan Grey, a young man obsessed with gothic tales. We’re never entirely sure whether we are seeing his reality or his fantasy as he wanders into a village and finds himself protecting two sisters from the grips of an elderly vampire and a manipulative doctor. In their midsts are shadows that walk without bodies and skulls that turn to watch the action, among other surreal memento moris. Severin’s score captures the mood of the images and arouses appropriate emotion for scenes such as the death of the sisters’ father. But it stays controlled, accompanying rather than overwhelming. Allan uses a book left by the dead father to discover more about the history of vampires. Through this knowledge he discovers the identity of the vampire and its living servant, and foils their attempts to corrupt the soul of an innocent girl. By the time we watch our unlikely hero sail away and the curtains draw, the line between fantasy and reality has ceased to matter. Severin leaves, as he arrived, without ceremony. The applause suggests neither fans of him or the film have been disappointed.
When it was first released in Germany in 1932, ‘Vampyr’ was a box office flop after which Dreyer didn’t make another film for over ten years. It drew from different sources than Hollywood’s iconic but mediocre ‘Dracula’, released in the same year on the other side of the Atlantic, making no reference to Bram Stoker’s novel but instead to the older vampire legends of european folklore. With its multiple changes in perspective and slow-building storyline it’s easy to see why it wasn’t a hit on the same scale, but as a daring work of art it has succeeded in having an impact beyond the box office. Guillermo del Toro became obsessed with it as a student and has provided a commentary for the DVD. Alfred Hitchcock called it “The only film worth seeing… twice.” With such rich imagery this is a film worth taking time over, and hearing a new soundtrack was a great way to appreciate it from yet another angle. The more important films are illuminated for new audiences by contemporary musicians the better, and the cinema is the perfect place to make it happen.