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Kino on Video presents
"Only a boy he was, Sir, and there she was, laughing like the devil."
DVD ReviewTo silent filmgoers, the word "vampire" didn't conjure up images of the undead and cemeteries. Rather, they had a different kind of bloodsucker in mind: the femme fatale. This is the picture that made "vampire" and "vamp" household words, and catapulted Theda Bara to stardom as the first movie sex symbol.
John Schuyler (Edward Jose) is a wealthy lawyer and philanthropist who is happily married with a child. When he is named special envoy to Great Britain, his wife's sister (May Allison) has an accident and the wife (Mabel Frenyear) decides to stay behind. The Vampire (Bara), seeing that a wealthy man will be traveling unaccompanied, casts aside her current conquest, Reginal Farmalee (Victor Benoit) and books passage on the ship. At dockside, he blows his brains out while the Vampire laughs; soon she has her clutches on Schuyler. Before we know it, he's on a downward spiral into obsession, alcohol and complete disgrace. Even after she casts Schuyler aside, drained of his wealth and health, the Vampire still will not allow him to attempt to put together the pieces of his life.
Based on a stage play by Porter Emerson Browne, after a poem, The Vampire, by Rudyard Kipling, which was in turn inspired by a painting by Edward Burne-Jones, A Fool There Was is relentless in the onslaught and damage wreaked by the Vampire. She's a hypnotic nightmare, not literally undead, but clearly draining the life out of her victims; the makeup on Schuyler at the end would have allowed him to take part in Night of the Living Dead without missing a beat. The one thing that's missing is seeing the Vampire really in action; we're told that she's seductive, but we never really see her do her magic, just the effects afterwards. In a sense, this is more effective, leaving it up to the imagination and not risking a scene of temptation that might look silly today. And how she does it doesn't really matter here; it's the effects of the Vampire that the picture is interested in more than anything else. Brutally uncompromising, the film refuses to have a Hollywood moral redemption or even a punishment doled out. Indeed, from a moral standpoint the picture feels like it could have been made in the 1970s.
Bara became a star through this picture, and it's easy to see why. Although certainly not beautiful or even pretty, she's quite striking and moves with a feline stealth, sinuously summoning her fools to her feet or leaping upon her prey. She seems to have instinctively understood that body language could convey a great deal more than the usual overwrought emoting that tended to plague silent films. Never does she overact; she's quite subtle and in this lie the dangers of the vamp. She's the woman your mother warned you about, but warnings are meaningless once she sets her sights on a target. Jose does a fine job of conveying a strong man who succumbs to the Vampire and is gradually reduced to an alcoholic, twitching wreck. Victor Benoit as the earlier victim is also noteworthy. Indeed, the streets seem littered with the Vampire's victims; tramps and the destitute recognize each other as victims of her wiles.
There are a number of narrative jumps that lead me to believe that there are significant chunks of the picture missing or lost. Since every single one of Bara's films but three are now lost (counting this one), we should consider ourselves lucky that this managed to somehow survive. Few images on the screen, silent or sound, are quite as haunting as the closing image of the Vampire dropping rose petals onto Schuyler's deathlike face and blowing them off as she chuckles.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The full-frame image looks excellent considering its extreme age. A few shots are overly contrasted, but in general there is good fine detail and the print is in surprisingly fine condition. The picture is color-tinted to match the moods, and this helps the appearance as well. There tends to be a fair amount of grain throughout, and a few spots of minor decomposition are visible. But overall, I'm more than happy with this disc's appearance.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The disc carries a piano score by Phil Carli. It follows the mood of the picture well without being Mickey-Mousy. Some minor hiss is detectable, but the sound is quite good and free of distortion. Sound comes from all speakers, including the surrounds.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 11 cues and remote access
Packaging: unknown keepcase
Extras Grade: C
Final CommentsThe original Vampire hits DVD with a nice transfer and a good-sounding score. There aren't many extras, but those provided are worthwhile.
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