recognition, mutation, remix
Recognition of vampire status is used as a narrative drive in most outputs, playing with the tensions of exposition both within the filmic construct and with the viewer on the other side of the screen. This is achieved both through visual coding and sonic signifiers which, due to the narrative formula, operate by oscillating between the familiar and active defamiliarizing (Gelder, 86). There is an implicit contract which has a very clear payoff in vampire cinema; one which is hinged on the audience accepting the moment of recognition. And, in a way, the vastness of narrative distribution means that we already accept the fictional status of the vampire, we are a part of the metaverse - whether we permit entry or not. This recognition contract relies heavily on fusing the visual aesthetic with sonic indicators.
Earlier works (pre-1980s) utilise more structural modes of recognition - they operate from within the narrative through constructing a world which, although at times referring to the genre more broadly, do not ordinarily include music from external sources (either diegetic or non-diegetic). Outside of necessary foley, the sonic imagination lies in the hands of the composer. The musical rulebook of western vampire cinema can be attributed to James Bernard’s scoring of the Hammer Horror vampire series. For these relatively low budget films (the studio’s 1958 Dracula film financed for £81,41) the musical world was an investment which enabled the producers to render the seductive yet monstrous presence through sonic suggestion rather than graphic depictions of gore or sexuality - which would have been subject to heavy censorship and damaging to box office success. According to Bernard this was marked by a desire for a quality output: “Hammer liked to have symphonic scores, written by classically trained composers, conducted by classically trained conductors and performed and recorded by players and sound engineers of the highest calibre” (quoted in Hannan 64). These are characterised by chromaticism, deranged (perverted) organ music and dissonant modernist techniques which, like the monster as disruptor, “takes musical shape as tonality gone awry to the point of incomprehension” (65). This mode of sounding is consistent and has become convention through its repeated use - both with genuine intention and as parody or pastiche. Indeed, its use has become so cliche that this outdated sonic dread becomes humorous in its rewatching. It is as formulaic as the narrative, the predetermined structure reaching beyond the Hammer-verse, creating what Michael Hannan describes as a “a musical reference bank”, which enables this act of recognition (71).
The sonic recognition of the vampire in Bernard’s score employs a thematic mode of identification. Hannan describes the distinctive three-note leitmotif as “a setting of the word Dra-cu-la”, versions of which are used unfailingly when the bloodsucker appears (65). It leeches onto the vampire, filling the void of his name, and has the effect of making the plot even more predictable as each appearance is coupled with a sonic indicator. The use of leitmotif is at times met with another formal rather than narrative construction wherein the vampire looks directly into the camera. The penetrating gaze of the undead offers a contract of recognition which operates outside of the film itself. We know. As viewers, we are well-versed in the conventions of the narrative, so much so that the filmmakers trust this moment of recognition to occur. In other works, such as Michio Yamamoto’s Bloodthirsty trilogy 1970-1974, the vampire is tied specifically to an instrument which equally guides our anticipatory recognition. While the trilogy has no narrative continuity, it is tied together only by the vampire threat (and not even the same vampire), each apparition of the undead is coupled with the flute. Composer Riichirō Manabe’s score tracks the vampire, the tonal quality of the flute shifting from eerie, to threatening, to resolve as the narrative unfolds.
Mohammed Shebl Anyab (Fangs) 1981
In more contemporary iterations which operate outside of the mechanics of camp, sonic indicators prove to be a more reliable indication of vampirism than their appearance. They look just like us; what reveals them is their sound. The historic association of vampire = music is used in Michael O’Shea’s 2016 The Transfiguration as a threshold between the natural and supernatural. O’Shea’s film tells the story of a young adolescent boy, Milo, who has become infected through his obsessive consumption of vampire cinema. As the film opens, we are immediately met with Milo exsanguinating and drinking the blood of his victim in a public bathroom. The surging, stomach churning bass is accompanied by detailed sounds of drinking that renders a moment of real repulsion, assaulting the viewer who cannot be comforted by looking away. Margaret Chardiet’s scoring throughout is minimal, relying more on amplified diegetic sounds - a kind of heightened awareness which is anxiety inducing, while placing us in sympathy with Milo as we follow his POV. The sounds of the everyday in the housing projects of Brooklyn are oppressive and sharp, paralleled by the shaky camera movement and we, like Milo, feel distrustful and overwhelmed by the rendered landscape. The ambiguity of urban noise is dizzying and helps to build our complicated relationship to the character. His daily life is punctuated by his compulsive viewing of vampire films, their scores slipping into his (and our) soundscape as a haunting of past media. As viewers, we are never quite sure whose side we’re on. This tension of uncertainty is amplified by the consistent use of this sub-bass and other more musical sounds as a premonition of his vampiric activities in moments of dissociation. In this film, it is unclear whether Milo is a vampire or just behaving like one or whether this is even a meaningful distinction to make. What is determined however, is that bloodsucking behaviour is sounded. Once this connection is made, all scored moments can be seen through this anticipatory framework. It drenches his violent behaviour in the supernatural which, rather than alienating him from the viewer, makes his actions more heartbreaking.
It is significant that Milo’s identity positioning as a vampire is one which is built around the wider distribution of vampire lore; thus, reflecting the mode of recognition in more recent films which refer to the cinematic status of vampires. The exposition is more that they are ‘real’ as opposed to that they exist. This folded expansion of the filmic universe of vampires extends beyond the parameters of the movie with figures such as Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi and Udo Kier becoming fused with vampiric identification. It is rumoured that Lugosi was even buried in his cape. The recognisability, not only of the story, but of actors associated with vampire roles, points towards their remixability. This recognition can be mobilised: a particularly interesting example of the metamorphic identity positioning of a vampire is Pere Portabella’s 1971 experimental film Cuadecuc, vampir. Shot on the set of Jesus Franco’s 1969 Count Dracula, crew members are seen preparing Christopher Lee to become identifiable as Dracula against a backdrop of narrative rendering. Dracula rising from his coffin is cut with Lee being made up, climbing into the coffin, before being covered by crew members with spiderwebs in out-of-date filmstock, the extremity of the black and white polarisation at times totally obscuring the ‘action’. All the while, there emanates from the filmic underbelly a powerful disorienting score by Carles Santos - an “industrial meltdown” - which covers nearly all diegetic sounds with a haunted heaviness (Schtinter, 8). The only moment of synchronised body/sound occurs when Lee, out of costume, reads from the source material that both this film and the outer film is parasiting, Stoker’s novel. This film, symbolically located from within Francisco Franco’s dictatorship of Spain, plays with the identification of the filmic vampire as metaphor. It is an artful, loaded, remake-in-action from a marginal position - the title, Cuadecuc, meaning ‘worms tail’ in Catalan, also describes the unexposed end of a film reel. Portabella hijacks Jesus Franco’s sexploitation ready-made, exploding the margins, and proposes a cut-up. This is reflected in the uncanny audiovisual synchronicity - not in the rendering of reality through diegesis, but rather in the material cracks, fissures and noise of the film stock which parallels the noisy score. It alludes to a kind of expanded diegesis. This echoed in the use of Musique Concrete techniques: the score points somewhere offscreen and actively recontextualizes, inviting the viewer to read the work as a proxy. Through audiovisual extraction and reconfiguration, Santos and Portabella’s remix “allows the formal shapes of expressive units to overtake their narrative meanings and thus highlight some of the means by which those meanings get produced” (Schtinter, 8). It proposes the remix as one which can shed light on what the story is ‘really about’, operating with maximum effectiveness when recognition is maintained. The power of decontextualization is both in its rewriting and its shareability; which fuses new meaning with something of its previous copy.