I was intrigued to receive an email a few weeks ago from Bjørn Egil Eide, to tell me about a film he has made called Volkodlak.
It was, as he explained it:
... a short film that mimics an old silent horror movie. It has English intertitles, original music and is just about as 'classic' as one can go both in terms of film-making and the horror genre. Now I'm searching for the "right audience" for the film... this is an amateur, ultra-low budget and artsy film, but it's also something completely different from the rest of today's many generic titles and I'm sure it would be very welcomed by fans of old horror films - if they actually knew about it. If nothing else it does at least keep the spark of classic horror cinema alive.
There's something perversely heroic about an amateur film-maker striving to recreate the look and atmosphere of a silent movie, and I really do like the finished product.
There are some truly impressive images and effects in it, and while you are never quite in danger of mistaking it for the real thing (the cast look unavoidably modern) it is often amazingly effective given the kind of constraints that video filmmakers must ever labour under, compounded massively in this instance by the need to create an artificial style and setting.
The absence of soundtrack does not feel gimmicky but genuinely of the essence of the piece. It's not a flashy pastiche but rather the product of Eide's deep and wide-ranging love of silent horror, coupled with a genuine disenchantment with many of the genre's contemporary manifestations.
I'd like to think that the renewal of interest in silent cinema brought about by The Artist might rub off in some small measure on this film, unquestionably one of the best amateur productions I have seen.
Despite his concerns to the contrary, Bjørn's English is fantastically good - better than my Norwegian, det er sikkert - and I first asked him if he had made any films prior to this one, and how he got the idea.
Bjørn Egil Eide: It was the first of my attempts that I managed to turn into a complete film. I'd had a couple of stabs at film making during the late 90's, but I lacked focus on what I was doing as well as the ability to do proper editing. As a result these attempts crashed and burned.
In August 2002 I had become more serious and wanted to try my hand at a dark comedy (in Norwegian) together with a group of friends. During its production I managed to "con" a couple of these into joining me on some "damn fool idealistic crusade", and so Volkodlak was started in January 2003.
This lead to both films being shoot at the same time. I finished the original cut of Volkodlak in 2005, long before the other production wrapped, but because of insecurities surrounding it (which can be read about at our website) I held it back. It didn't see a release until late 2010 - four years after its "twin production" had been shown at a local college.
Well, I had no choice really. I had to get rid of a ghost that had haunted me since my early teens. The thing that made me interested in making films in the first place was the early horror films, and of these I was particularly drawn to the silent ones. There was something about them, it was like peering into a color- and sound-less ancient mystery-world, that dust and scratches tried to hide from you. A place where monsters lived. Maybe they seemed more believable that way, I don't know. In any case, I was hooked.
I knew how to operate a video camera by then and made up my mind - I was going to make something just like this! Although I tried, and failed the following years, the urge to complete such a film kept lurking in the back of my mind. I couldn't get rid of it. Finally, the first day of 2003 I decided that I just had to go through with it if I hoped to stay (somewhat) sane.
I'm guessing you're a fan of Dreyer's Vampyr. Can you tell me what some of your other favourites are, or any other influences that fed into the film?
You know what, I actually didn't see that one until only a few years ago. I was impressed with its striking visuals, minimalistic use of sound and the fact that much of it felt like the recording of a dream. I distinctly remember the shot where the shadow of a peg-legged soldier sits down next to it's owner - who is already sitting! But there's a lot of fascinating and memorable moments in there.
A major influence on me as a film maker was the shot from Nosferatu where Count Orlok is discovered in his coffin, and the one of him rising from the earth box. Other major influences were The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Frankenstein (1931) - which was probably the first of the old horror films that I watched in it's entirety, Dracula (1931) and White Zombie. Really most of the old Universal canon and other horror, science fiction and fantasy films (and cartoons) that I saw at a fairly young age influenced me greatly. King Kong, Ray Harryhausen films, the old Star Wars trilogy and Gremlins also made me interested in special effects. I'm very glad practical effects were still the norm while I was a kid so that I was spared of the CGI craze at an impressionable age.
Mario Bava's Mask of Satan had a late but tremendous influence. It is my favorite Gothic horror film because of its beautiful black and white imagery, and because it's dripping with a wonderfully dark and dreamy atmosphere pretty much from start to finish.
I can see the influence of Bava in there.
Of the Italian horrors it's mostly the Barbara Steele films that I've seen, from the sixties. What I like about them is that many of them were shot in black and white and stepped back into the Gothic realm. Also they feel a bit deeper, more psychological than many of their contemporaries (like the Hammer output), dealing with taboo subjects such as incest, lesbianism, necrophilia. I think it makes them more interesting. They are what I fancy the American horror films of the late 30's could have become if they hadn't been made to suffer the wrath of the Hays Code. If you look at films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935), it doesn't seem so far fetched.
And yes, I am definitely a Barbara Steele fan. I have an autographed photo of her from the set of Mask of Satan on the wall of my office. In my book she is the Gothic horror chick, there's just something unique about her that's impossible to explain. That, and she's incredibly attractive in those films, especially in Mask of Satan. Yes, I know...
Have you seen The Artist? Do you think it might have a positive effect on how your film is received now?
Sadly it's not the kind of film that is likely to play anywhere near where I live. I've seen the trailer though and I think it looks great. It's nice to see something of this style being well received. I guess most people who'll go to see it (and want to see my film) are people who are fans of classic cinema, but who knows? So I hope it does very well, that certainly can't hurt a film like mine and other film makers who want to develop similar projects.
What do you dislike about modern horror films?
A lot, so get ready for my rant! No, I'll try to restrain myself. It was when all the torture-porn and extreme gore really kicked in (like the Saw pictures and all the zombie-stuff) that I'd had enough. It just doesn't do it for me. Sure, it's all truly horrifying, but it's the kind of experience that leaves me more sick to the stomach than fills me with dread. I can of course only speak from a personal perspective, but in general it seems that today everything has to be extreme. It's over-the-top and in-your-face, constant use of jump-scares and overuse of CGI. The result is overkill on all fronts and it renders me numb and unimpressed pretty quickly.
Then there's also a tendency to set everything to modern times which I think is a mistake. It seems to me that the further away from a world with electric light and technology you get the bigger the arena of darkness and insecurities become, and I don't understand why that isn't taken more advantage of. I truly believe that a less extreme approach in this genre - both in the use of special effects and in-your-face moments - along with a focus on atmosphere and use of the unseen (or only partially seen) - is far more effective if you want to get under someone's skin. I can't remember who said this and which film they were referring to, but it was something like; "this film is not designed to horrify, it's designed to haunt". Now that's a great philosophy! I'm not saying the genre as a whole should adapt it, but a good chunk of it should.
I agree. What is your next project?
There's so many ideas, but little time available to work on them. Volkodlak took three years to do, and after that I decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from film making mainly because it's just too time consuming. But, I do have a couple of finished scripts, and one is for another Cold Grave Studio production. It's called Black Cloak (it's not a vampire film), and would be similar to Volkodlak in terms of technique, but be closer to an early 1930's Pre-Code sound horror film.
You've got my ticket already!
The sound however would mainly be used for the sake of effect, not so much for dialogue. It has great potential, but since it's a much larger production then Volkodlak it would need some real funding as well as the involvement of an English-speaking crew, so it's pretty unlikely that I'll ever get it made. I would definitely go through with it though if I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity.
What would you like to say to anyone about to watch Volkodlak for the first time?
This is of course a very small, homemade film, a love-letter to classic horror cinema, made by fans for fans, to keep the spirit alive. Naturally it's not something that most websites promoting independent horror films are likely to care about, and we don't have resources to promote it ourselves. So we're totally reliant on word of mouth from fan to fan, but without the help from horror bloggers I fear the film will have an incredibly hard time finding this very specific audience. So I'm very grateful to you, Matthew, for taking the time to write about it. It means a lot to me. So everyone - please tell your ghoulish friends!
You can see the full movie here.