Review: Gary Lucas premieres brilliant new score for the horror classic, Vampyr

November 1, 2014
AFI Silver Cinema
Silver Spring, Maryland

By Bruce Waltuck, author, consultant, pres. of Freethinc, LLC and The Institute for Open Economic Networks (I-Open)

Last Saturday, the American Film Institute's Silver Cinema in Silver Spring, Maryland, offered a unique program for the Day of the Dead. In traditional Mexican communities, families pay tribute to their ancestors with offerings of flowers, candles, and foods loved by the departed. The AFI honored great films associated with All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day with silent horror films featuring live musical accompaniment.

The brilliant guitarist Gary Lucas has long been a fan of the horror genre. As a kid growing up in Syracuse, New York, Gary waited each month for the local drugstore to get the new issue of Forrest J. Ackerman's fanzine, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Gary admired the work of William Castle, the Universal monster favorites, and the early silent classics that defined the genre. Over the years, Mr. Lucas has created scores for both silent and sound treasures, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to the Spanish-language version of Dracula.

At the AFI event, Gary performed the world premier of his score for the silent German Expressionist classic, Vampyr. The film is an acknowledged masterpiece, following an oddly curious protagonist through a literal and figurative dark night of the soul. A town and its residents are prey to an undead vampire, who is aided by the town's doctor. No other movie so perfectly captures the sense of reality that we experience in dreams. The director, Carl Dryer, uses then-new unique camera angles and movement, to draw us in as inexorably as the Vampyr plots to enslave its victims.

Just as this film is acknowledged as a masterpiece, Gary Lucas is a master of the guitar. There is no genre that this guitar-god hasn't conquered. Few, if any, players can boast their work ranges from the sprung rhythms of Captain Beefheart, to the intricacies of mid-century Chinese pop; from the howl and whine of shimmering Delta blues, to Gershwin standards. For his score accompanying Vampyr, Mr. Lucas chose to exclusively play his acoustic guitar, itself a classic post-war Gibson. Augmented by a few of Mr. Lucas' trademark guitar effect pedals, the combination provided a sonic palette capable of delicate arpeggio harmonics one moment, and intricate ethereal tapestries the next.

In the few years since Mr. Lucas premiered his score for another horror classic, the Spanish version of Dracula, his concept and arrangement for film has advanced significantly. His performance on the stage of the AFI Silver Cinema delivered an expressive, evocative musical match to the story unfolding on the screen. The arrangers and performers accompanying silent films have to choose their motifs carefully, and match their playing to the action with split-second timing. Gary Lucas has created a score for Vampyr that so perfectly mirrors and amplifies the screen images, that it is hard to imagine any other music with this film. His playing was flawless, and his artistry superb.

Fans of silent movies will watch them most Sunday nights on Turner Classic Movies. TCM often shows them with newly-commissioned scores. We can only hope that the genius of Dreyer's film and of Mr. Lucas' guitar will be recorded and offered to all of us. This would be a gift on the Day of the Dead, and every day for the living.