Tale of a gothic library

Full disclosure. I first watched this movie, Tale of a Vampire (1992), back in January. Here was my Facebook status afterwards:

That motivation took more than 5 months to come back to me!

And it’s not like the movie is that bad. It is an interesting gothic tale with lots of atmosphere, but both the structure of the story, and underlying motivations of the characters, weaken the film considerably. And while some might call the pace “stately,” for me, it was just SLOW.

There are several scenes set in the library, but I won’t bore you with details of all of them — although I certainly bored myself taking notes on them all!. The only way I could get through this write-up/analysis/whatever-you-want-to-call-it was to break it down into manageable chunks. So here goes:

*SPOILER ALERTS*

What’s it all about?

Anne (Suzanna Hamilton, who looks like a cross between Julia Ormond and Tara Fitzgerald), a woman still recovering from her fiancé’s mysterious death, lands a job at a library specializing in the occult. One of the library’s regulars is Alex (Julian Sands, who plays a tortured romantic soul like no one else), a vampire who believes Anne to be the reincarnation of his lost love. There’s also another mysterious man — there is no other kind in this movie — in a big hat, named Edgar (Kenneth Cranham), who makes up the third in a very bizarre love triangle.

Library atmosphere

The library is a major set-piece throughout the film, showcased within the first 5 minutes. In fact, there are so many that I started mentally intoning, “Meanwhile, back at the library…” for the countless, back-and-forth establishing shots. The look of the film is all black and orange and shadows.

The librarian’s desk — first seen in an aerial shot, like a crow’s view? — is quite messy and ornate (reflecting the library itself), with odd-looking busts and statues and shadow boxes all around. The film begins with a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” so the bust, seen below, is a nice touch.

We gets clues about the library throughout the film. Edgar steals some library stationery that has “The Foster Library” stamped along the top. He also describes the library as “fascinating” and later produces a library patron record with the full name, “The Foster Library: Library of Mysticism & the Occult” across the top (see below).

Note: I checked, and that doesn’t seem to be a real library in England. There is a Foster Library in Lincolnshire, but it’s all about archives and local history, not the occult.

You know I had to look that up, right? 😉

The library scenes also emphasize the undercurrent tension of rules and restrictions (and secrets?):

  • Books are reference only, and “it took a great deal of persuading to the archive to let [the rare books] go”
  • There’s a prominent “Silence” sign on the librarian’s desk, visible in a screenshot above
  • There are iron bars everywhere — including an iron banister in front of the reference desk, see below — literally closing off sections of the claustrophobic library set

Twinsies

By this point, I was marveling at how much Anne mirrored the older librarian, Denise (Marian Diamond), but as a younger version. Seriously, take a look at some of these side-by-side shots. Perhaps the film is subtly suggesting what Anne could become without love in her life?

We see quite a few scenes with Anne shelving, picking up books, writing out cards, more shelving, talking with Denise, etc., but things don’t really seem all that busy. But appearances are deceiving, right? (So meta.) Although there is no mention of Anne’s qualifications, there are several scenes of her reading and talking intelligently about poetry, etc., getting the idea across that she is cultured and educated. But it’s obvious she’s not really into the library, as she checks her watch several times while working and says things like, “I’m not terribly busy at the moment” to patrons. She also says later that “I just needed a job, and it came up, so I took it.”

Poor Denise

When helping Alex with a rare book at the beginning of the film (see right), Denise lets him know right away how short-staffed they are. Ahhh, how things haven’t changed.

When Anna shows up at the library for the job interview — an interview the librarian knew nothing about because Edgar had orchestrated the whole thing — the librarian does not waste any time complaining about the staffing situation.

We are terribly short-staffed. I suppose head office must have sent this [letter] out. Either that or I’m getting even more forgetful than I’d thought. It’s overwork, you know. Actually I’m terribly glad to see you. I’ve been on my own for over a month now, and it’s far too much for a single member of staff.

Short-staffed or not, Denise the Librarian has to deal with a lot of weird stuff. But of course, she also works in a library specializing in the occult, so perhaps it’s to be expected. In one scene almost an hour in, Edgar takes away a periodical from an old man, a long-time user of the library, a man who also has a pet mouse in his pocket. (No, I’m not being metaphorical. See below.)

Here’s how this creepy scene plays out:

Denise:  Excuse me. But could you possibly give it back to him? I’m sorry, but he does get so distressed. If you come over to the magazine rack, I’m sure I could interest you in something equally good.

Edgar:  Thank you. This is what I want. I shan’t be a moment.

Denise:  Look, I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t serious.

Edgar:  Oh, this is a public library, isn’t it? [pretends to read for a few moments, then closes the magazine] There. I said I wouldn’t be long.

[Denise hands the magazine to the old man]

Old man [to Edgar]:  I know who you are. I’ve seen your picture somewhere.

Uh, oh. This inauspicious conversation leads to Denise discovering the old man’s bloodied body in the public restroom. I smell a rat…. oh wait, that’s a mouse. Sorry.

We also get to witness Denise crying over the poor old man, as well as her quite touching concern over Anne’s health. Poor Denise. Odds are good she’ll be short-staffed again soon…

Style vs. substance

In this kind of film, it seemed to me that the character types didn’t matter all that much. The personality traits were kind of all over the place for every character, and motivation was murky at best. If I had to pin down the reel librarian roles, I would say that Denise served more as an Information Provider than anything else, and Anne fits the Spirited Young Girl type the most. She doesn’t really care about the library (“I just needed a job… and I took it”), and is not afraid to express her personal feelings and thoughts. I would argue she’s not a Liberated Librarian, because she doesn’t really change internally (or externally) throughout the story. Although one of the three major characters, her real role is just to react to everybody else.

To me, it seemed like style won over substance overall, and fittingly, the library as a place means more than the librarians within that place. The library serves as a place of information, to be sure, and due to its specialty of the occult, it is a convenient place in this Class I film to connect all the main characters. But this library, however cloistered it appeared, does NOT serve as a safe haven in a harsh, cruel world; in the end, its iron bars cannot hold back secrets or danger or even death.

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3 comments on “Tale of a gothic library

  1. robincoyle says:

    Thanks for the pingback!

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