In Black & White: Vampire Cinema / How To Read a Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

THE VAMPIRE FILM. By Alain Silver and James Ursini. A.S. Barnes & Co.; The Tantivy Press. 238 pages. Illustrated. $10.
THE VAMPIRE CINEMA. By David Pirie. Crown Publishers: Crescent Books. 176 pages. Illustrated. $7.98.

Two recent books on vampire movies, both apparently bidding to become the definitive source on the subject, actually emerge as complementary: the inadequacies of one are the strengths of the other.

David Pirie’s The Vampire Cinema demands respect at very first glance. A green-fleshed, imposing figure of a caped vampire from Jean Rollin’s Requiem pour un Vampire glares at us from a tombstone-shaped frame, centered on a background of blood red, threatening us moviegoers and movie-book buyers with the (intended?) ambiguity of the book’s title. Unlike most coffeetable books, this one has a text every bit as good and exciting as its pictures: Pirie’s writing, except for a few grammatical eccentricities, is literate, sharp, economic, and filled with insight. The illustrations, many in color, are selected, arranged, and reproduced with the greatest integrity, reflecting Pirie’s insistence upon the centrality of landscape and milieu to the vampire film, and with a profound respect for the fact that the pictures, and their layout, carry much of the burden of the book. They are there to be looked at, studied, their captions read—not just to dazzle the eye, decorate a page, or fill up space. Alice’s rhetorical “What is the use of a book without pictures?” is particularly relevant in the case of books on film, where recourse to composition, uses of color, light, and landscape are so crucial. Unhappily, Pirie is ultimately more concerned with theme and genre than with the specific cinematic techniques so many of these pictures exemplify, and that is one of the few inadequacies in his book.

Alain Silver and James Ursini published The Vampire Film nearly two years before Pirie’s work. In appearance, their book is pedestrian, even drab, with no special concept of design. Pictures, all monochrome, are placed more or less arbitrarily, often with no immediate relevance to the adjacent text. The text format itself varies as to type and placement of headings; there are several instances of transposed lines, drag-on sentences that cry out for a copy-editor who knows his commas, distracting apposites that are opened with dashes but closed, if at all, with commas or semicolons.

But Silver and Ursini know how to write about movies. They are the authors of books on samurai films and Preston Sturges, respectively, and—as a team—a study of David Lean. They are concerned with—and seem to have a greater understanding of—camera placement and movement, composition, light and shadow, montage, and other stylistic considerations to which Pirie gives short shrift. Their book is thus notably better in discussing individual films—as exemplified especially in their excellent close study of Mario Bava. They have also taken the care to include an excellent filmography, giving release dates, cast, and major credits, as well as alternate titles, of virtually every vampire film extant (though the reader is somewhat burdened by the identification of foreign films by their English titles in the text but by their original titles in the filmography).

Close film analysis is not Pirie’s forte, and if you want to know more about a film he mentions only in passing, or hasn’t seen, you’re pretty much out of luck: he provides no filmography and only a scant index (though both books offer excellent bibliographies).

Pirie’s concern with the specific design and milieu of studio horror products, and with overviews of screenplay and treatment rather than specific stylistic traits, makes him stronger and more informative on the subject of general trends that have shaped the vampire’s film image. His knowledge of the studio system and the industry itself also enables him to give us several interesting tidbits on the side (such as the fact that Italian directors use American pseudonyms to increase the salability of their films in Italy, not abroad).

As in his earlier book A Heritage of Horror, one of the few truly excellent critical works to arise from horror genre study, Pirie mixes auteurism with genre survey and sociological analysis; but he’s ultimately an heir of Siegfried Kracauer, concerned principally with cinematic trends as reflective of—and contributory to—existing social moods and the ever-changing expressions of the collective unconscious (“If the vampire has begun to leave the cinema, it is because he no longer plays inside our own heads, and has ceased to be a part of western civilisation’s dreams and nightmares”). He establishes his critical bases in the simplest terms (“I use subjective judgments in discussing the films … as an indication of how far I think an individual film will reward proper scrutiny”), but they are firmly grounded in an insistence upon the film as narrative: “a narrative film is worth consideration exactly to the extent that it is ‘entertaining,’ and I use the word to indicate any quality … in which I can find relevance.” Or this: “By taking the vampire out of a narrative context and placing it in an essentially visual frame of reference, Rollin has deprived the form of much of its interest.”

This bias doesn’t quite square with Pirie’s avowed devotion to the impact of graphic horror—the Gothic school of Schauerromantik, which he so passionately defends in A Heritage of Horror—and even less with his assertion that “the cinema remains the most effective reproduction of the dream experience that has yet been devised”: How many dreams have narrative form? Silver and Ursini are rather more convincing in their acknowledgment of the unique qualities of film in giving life to the vampire mythos: “Only motion pictures, by means of special effects … can give those ascribed traits [of the vampire] the impact of a high degree of graphic reality…. Film is again uniquely capable of rendering the destruction of a vampire with grisly actuality … Whether it is the illusion or the very melodrama of seeing these things happen on screen … they continue to elicit the most substantial viewer response, to constitute the narrative and visual foundations of the entire genre, which any individual motion picture may play with or against but cannot ignore.”

Pirie’s concern for social milieu is a direct result of his conviction that the salient feature of the vampire is its “ability to replace the ordered sexual stability of society with a chaotic and dislocating eroticism.” And: “The function of the vampire movie is precisely to incarnate the most hostile aspects of sexuality in a concrete form.” In this context, Pirie notes that the proliferation of vampire films in the late Fifties and into the Sixties paralleled the relaxing of censorial constraints (“the supernatural was still able to go further than the sex movie”), and that their ultimate thinning-out has come as a result of unprecedented liberties in explicit screen sexuality, reducing the need for more symbolic expressions of eroticism.

Because the vampire is specifically a corrupting force, then, something corruptible must be present as milieu-and-victim. For Pirie it is the Victorian family. Silver and Ursini agree with Pirie on the importance of danger and vulnerability inherent in the social milieu of the vampire, but are distinctly more tolerant of changing treatments of the vampire, of his adaptability to contemporary settings, and even of the sympathetically treated vampire-hero, with whom Pirie has no patience. This broader view is due, perhaps, to Silver’s and Ursini’s acceptance of other elements besides antisocial sexual aggression coexisting in the vampire.

Silver and Ursini take the vampire as a constant, and set out to catalog and study his occurrences and their various treatments in literature, film, and—tangentially—other aspects of pop culture, stressing the recurrent conventions of the vampire myth as a literary and psychological archetype. They are thus stronger on literary and mythic background than Pirie, who cuts his introduction short to get into his chronologically ordered genre survey. Pirie sees the vampire myth as an intermittent intruder into human affairs, different cultures and societies, and devotes his attention to the different manifestations of the vampire and the social and sociological reasons therefor (even including the living dead, ghouls, and certain zombies in his study). His sketchy literary background overlooks Southey’s “Thalaba,” Keats’s “Lamia,” and even Coleridge’s “Christabel,” a lesbian vampire who predates Sheridan LeFanu’s “Carmilla” by a full seventy years! All these are carefully examined by Silver and Ursini, who even give brief attention to the elements of the vampirism present in Country Joe McDonald’s “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine.”

Ultimately, however, both Silver & Ursini and Pirie become so enamored of the rigid traits, traditions, and conventions of the vampire myth that they begin to use faithfulness to tradition as a measure of the worth of a vampire film, leading both volumes to underrate seriously several iconoclastic vampire films, including Edward Dein’s Curse of the Undead (a fascinating little film, but these authors cannot accept the idea of the vampire as gunfighter); Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (a sardonically witty pastiche of science fiction and vampirism that isn’t even mentioned in Pirie’s text); Freddie Francis’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (the Count’s yanking the stake out of his heart is a burden for any vampirologist to accept); and Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires (which they unaccountably dismiss as little more than an irreverent comedy, Pirie going so far as to praise the ending of Count Yorga, Vampire without so much as acknowledging its debt to the Polanski film).

At $7.98, Pirie’s book is easily the better buy; but both books are valuable in distinctly different and necessary ways, and must be considered essential reading for the devotee of fantasy film.

***

HOW TO READ A FILM: The Art, Technology, Language, History and Theory of Film and Media. By James Monaco. Diagrams: David Lindroth. Oxford University Press. Hardbound, 520 pages, Illustrated. $15.

If you’ve been crinkling a five and a ten in your pocket, wondering whether or not to spring for James Monaco’s How to Read a Film, hesitate no longer. You’ll be getting the best of the bargain by far, for Monaco’s is a near-priceless volume, gathering for the first time between two covers virtually all the basic information a filmgoer needs, in the kind of detail that contemporary film-viewers have come to demand.

How to Read a Film has the look and feel of a textbook, and I’d be very much surprised if it isn’t already being used for that purpose in a number of colleges. The sturdy pages, covers, and binding make the book a durable one for repeated use, to outlast thousands of thumbings. The pages are easy on the hand and the eye. Structurally, too, Monaco’s book is arranged as a text, proceeding from basic definitions and necessary background into the more detailed realms of film aesthetics, economics, semiology, technology, and theory.

It’s Monaco’s aim that his readers become “cinemate” (“a neologism, based on the model of ‘literate'”), his word for the moviegoer who is able to “read” and grasp the whole range of meanings and experiences involved in watching a film. How to Read a Film is built to help the already experienced film viewer to fill gaps in his knowledge and heighten his understanding of film, as well as to lead the casual filmgoer through his first steps into deeper “cinemacy.”

Unquestionably the area in which a majority of moviegoers are most in need of help is technology. Monaco explains the principles of optical mechanics and wave mechanics in lucid terms, always using examples, analogies, and drawings to help the reader. Quite apart from light, film, cameras, and projection, How to Read a Film also explains in refreshingly clear terms how radio, television, tape, hi-fi, and color TV work; and, for the technologically deprived and mechanically ungifted, like me, light breaks where no sun shines.

Equally useful is Monaco’s history of the movie industry (his refreshing approach to film history involves three distinct chronological studies—one on the economics of the industry, one on the technological developments, and one on changing styles in the aesthetics of film). In a few short pages he provides names, dates, and key events that heretofore have been inaccessible except to the reader of scores of Hollywood biographies and studio histories. Because his book was just published during the past year, Monaco is also current (though his economic study of movies does omit the recent phenomenon of film production by tax-shelter corporation, something I would like to have read more about).

And when How to Read a Film is over, it isn’t over: In addition to a carefully detailed index, Monaco has included three excellent appendices: a chronology of major films, inventions and discoveries; a vast and vital bibliography; and a most ambitious “Standard Glossary for Film and Media Criticism,” now in its third revision.

At times it seems as if Monaco has bitten off a bit much in including radio, hi-fi, television, and video; but the chapter in which these technologies are discussed is so enlightening, and their relationship to film made so apparent, that once one is into the book nothing seems inappropriate.

Well, almost nothing. There are little lapses here and there, Including—on the present topic—Monaco’s insistence on the phrase “film and media,” as if film were something other than a medium; and his shocking use, on two occasions, of the word “mediums,” as if “media” were something other than the plural of “medium.”

Not everything he writes is pure fact. Monaco does not write with the detachment of the traditional faceless textbook author. There’s plenty in How to Read a Film that even the beginner might feel worth arguing about, and the book’s wide margins both invite and accommodate the reader’s contributions to what Monaco always emphasizes is a mutual study. Indeed, he has composed his book to be regarded in much the way that, in his words, films and other artworks have come to be considered today: “The question now is not ‘Does this art work meet the standards?’ but rather, ‘how can we use this art work best?'” His respect for the growing importance of the viewer as a participant in creating the aesthetic experience is reflected in his respect for his reader as a participant in the explorations that are the subject of his book.

Monaco’s own predispositions are frequently apparent, the most notable being a tendency to value Marxist dialectic rather beyond its worth. He stresses the importance of a politically-based interpretation of film, and includes psychological and sociological matters under the general heading of politics, where others might do the reverse. He insists upon an “opposition between form and function,” and credits the study of function as “more meaningful” than the examination of aesthetic matters. “Opposition” is a term that comes up again and again in How to Read a Film, and not always appropriately. He speaks, for example, of “director versus screenwriter,” “sound versus image,” “character versus plot,” and the “dialectic between an artist’s sensibility and the classic mythic structures of story types.” True enough, collision may be the rule rather than the exception in filmmaking; but it is not as if these elements are never in harmony rather than in opposition. Collaboration, too, is an important element in film production (and the concept is not inconsistent with a Marxist-socialist sensibility, except for the suggestion that a collaborative effort can succeed in that quintessence of capitalism, the Hollywood system).

The notion of auteurs in harmony with genres, curiously, does show up in the book, in the context of an evaluative judgment that strikes one of the few jarring notes in Monaco’s book: “Friedkin … Bogdanovich … and Spielberg … have achieved inflated reputations by careful adjustment to popular taste.” The implication that popular genres are somehow inappropriate to truly personal artistic expression is inconsistent with the successful careers of the best directors; and, given that the people are the ultimate authors of myth and genre, seems equally out of line with Monaco’s own populism.

That populism is certainly a worthy position, especially insofar as it leads Monaco to champion increased democratization of the means not only of film production (already widely accessible through major technological advances of the past twenty years) but also of distribution (still inescapably tied to the capitalist super-corporation system). Yet it’s accompanied by a humanism that, however well-intended, clouds both Monaco’s judgment and his prose when it comes to separating form and content, the work and its milieu: “No amount of technical expertise demonstrated, money invested, or artistic effect should be allowed to outweigh Birth of a Nation’s militantly anti-Black political stance.” A great artist is a great artist whether we accept his viewpoint or not, and it must remain so.

Of course it is consistent with Monaco’s own aesthetics that he should identify form with content. In discussing Peter Wollen’s semiotics, he cites Wollen’s description of an Icon as “a sign in which the signifier represents the signified by its similarity to it” (emphasis mine), while himself asserting that “In the Iconic image, the signifier is identified with the signified” (emphasis mine). It’s simply not so. Movie Indians are not real Indians, and Mr. Griffith’s Blacks are not real Blacks, any more than John Wayne is Ethan Edwards.

Monaco’s sympathy with a Marxist populist approach, and with an identification of medium and message, is particularly understandable in light of his well-known study of the New Wave (and the legacy of his recently published book on the subject is felt in the slightly top-heavy use of stills from New Wave films in How to Read a Film). Yet the predisposition more than justifies itself in his splendid discussion of the importance of the New Wave and of the rise of auteurism. Monaco has also made, to my mind, a major contribution to film study in emphasizing again and again that auteurism is a critical policy, not an analytical theory—a distinction often made in French criticism but all too seldom in English.

A bit distracting is Monaco’s tendency to mathematicize the viewer’s aesthetic experience of film. We get products, quotients, ratios, and even axis graphs, all reminiscent of something a college professor might put on a blackboard in a momentary effort to quantify the subjective: One finds it years later, copied meticulously into one’s notebook, and realizes with a smile that it doesn’t add a thing to one’s understanding of the topic at hand.

There is, in fact, more than an echo of the academy in Monaco’s writing, his generally lucid prose dotted by occasional use of terms that are stuffy (“prior to” instead of “before,” “utilize” instead of “use,” “partially” instead of “partly”) if not downright wrong (“is comprised of” instead of “comprises” or “is composed of,” “coequal” where “equal” is meant). There are other nits to pick: he spends three pages elucidating the difference between a track and a zoom, then uses the terms interchangeably in a caption to a still from Michael Snow’s Wavelength; he renames Max Steiner “Fritz”; he exactly reverses the meanings of induction (reasoning to general conclusions by observation of the particular) and deduction (reasoning from general principles to particular cases); he identifies a shot of Ernie Kovacs’ character Eugene as Percy Dovetonsils; and his editor has omitted one of the drawings (the caption identifies the “integrated circuit” as smaller than a transistor and says it is shown on the page lifesize; one seeks it in vain—”Brother, that is small!”).

These are mostly piddling observations. If I seem to insist on a few faint damns in my praise of Monaco’s book, it is only because his occasional nods and lapses seem the more serious by virtue of the excellence around them. How to Read a Film is a book moviegoers and film critics alike have been needing for a long time. I’m glad it’s here.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.