Absolutely brilliant. Basically, it's about the fear of female sexuality. The central couple are established very quickly and effectively as a superstitious eastern (specifically, Serbian) woman, and a rational western (specifically, American) man. He is powerfully drawn to her, but can't explain why, while she is obsessed with legends that tell of how the women from her village are possessed by the spirits of cats, and turn into dangerous killers whenever they become angry, jealous or sexually aroused (since this is the 1940s, it's frequently established that a kiss would be enough). The obsession in itself is enough to start driving them apart, while as the story develops, it is increasingly suggested that she actually does turn into a vicious cat when her passions are aroused. The film ends with her committing suicide by deliberately letting a panther in the zoo out of its cage to attack her, while Mr. All-American Guy walks off happily arm-in-arm with the Sassy All-American Gal he has realised he really loved all along.
Obviously, from a 21st-century perspective, the plot is horrendously sexist and xenophobic. I found myself emitting a particularly hollow laugh when a (slimy, smug) psychiatrist who is trying to treat the woman establishes that the 'real' root of her troubles is that her father died when she was a baby, so that she had no proper father figure when growing up. But as an artefact of its time, it is a thing of real beauty. The lighting is fantastic, with lots of half-lit scenes and impenetrable shadows creating an atmosphere of darkness and suspense, and emphasising form and depth. And the approach to the fantastical element is very much suggestive, too - all about sounds and shadows and half-glimpsed shapes, rather than the direct portrayal of violence or monstrosity. It's very much the approach to horror I've always preferred, and there are several scenes in this film which are text-book examples of how effective it can be - I think in particular the swimming-pool scene, where the All-American Gal is trapped, terrified, treading water and twisting around to see what's happening on all sides of her, while the cat-woman lurks, heard but never seen, in the shadows around the pool, ready to attack at any moment.
7. Dracula (1958), dir. Terence Fisher
I'm not exactly sure how many times I've seen this film over the course of my life - but it's probably somewhere in the region of twenty; possibly even more. Most of those times have been via a copy which my Dad taped off the television in 1985 on our first ever video machine - and which I still have downstairs, in fact. Obviously, therefore, it's grainy and washed-out, although that's never stopped me enjoying the film. It's not widely celebrated as a horror classic for nothing.
What we saw at the film festival, though, was a digital restoration produced by the BFI. And it was absolutely amazing! It really looked like a completely brand-new print: it was effortlessly easy to imagine that you were part of the original audience, seeing it for the first time ever; or perhaps part of a modern audience, seeing an incredibly faithful remake. The colours were beautiful, especially the reds and yellows: Castle Dracula has never looked so opulent before. And the sound was really clear and strong and powerful, too. It added so much to the tension and drama of the film - especially, of course, in the wonderful chase scene at the end.
It's not like I've been missing out on great swathes of subtlety over the years by not seeing this film in its full glory - but there were small details which I'd missed. Above all, I was struck by the tear I could suddenly see running down Jonathan Harker's cheek just after he has staked Dracula's vampire bride - which added enormous emotional impact to the scene, and which I'd never even noticed before. The difference between my old copy and this print is like the difference between a cheap post-card and the actual Mona Lisa. And now I've seen the real thing, I'm not quite sure the post-card is going to cut it any more.
8. Daughters of Darkness (1971), dir. Harry Kümel
This is one of those gloriously self-indulgent European films from the '70s, in which plot and motivation take a decided second place to atmosphere, surrealism and symbolic motifs. Basically, you've got a young newly-wed couple in an almost-deserted seaside hotel, where they are joined by a predatory vampire countess and her pouty sidekick, and quickly fall under their sinister influence. Unlike in a traditional mainstream vampire film, though, the couple are not virginal innocents, who are eventually rescued from peril by a mysterious patriarch. Rather, the husband in particular is portrayed as violent and psychotic, and indeed seems to be the toy-boy of a rich male hedonist back in England - so may in fact have just married his bride as some kind of test of or rebellion against his existing relationship anyway. And the retired policeman, who remembers the last time the countess was in town, fails to do anything much more than offer a few veiled reservations, before he is knocked off his bicycle and never seen again.
Set in a wider context, this film obviously builds on much more conservative predecessors like The Vampire Lovers; it's a less-surreal, less-explicit cousin of Vampyros Lesbos (released in the same year); and it points the way very distinctly towards The Hunger. It's beautifully shot, with lots of lingering atmospheric scenes, and it gets great value out of its location (mainly Ostend). I don't think I enjoyed it quite as much as the other two films I saw, but I did love its sense of bleakness, desolation, and washed-up decadence (mainly personified in the vampire Countess). I'm certainly glad somebody managed to capture this take on the vampire genre so effectively.