By Kimberly Chun
Surprise: no theremins in earshot at the Castro Theatre on May 5 when Dengue Fever unleashed its new score for the 1925 silent adventure film, The Lost World, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Instead the seemingly sold-out audience got plenty of laughs, the compelling Wallace Beery as the seemingly mad Professor Challenger, herky-jerky yet still marvelous stop-motion dinosaurs, shameful black-face in the form of Sambo sidekick (Jules Cowles), and the fab scene of an astonishingly resilient Brontosaurus crashing through London city streets before plummeting from the famed bridge. The latter moment clearly evoked King Kong - and no wonder: the special effects were produced by Willis O'Brien, who also coaxed Kong to life.
The effects may have been primitive (the actor in the ape suit - the humanoid counterpart to the real thing named Jocko - was unintentionally hilarious) and the acting may have been vintage melodramatic fare, but the tug of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 tale had everyone in the Castro riveted. The portly dude beside me commented on every plot turn as Professor Challenger, accused of being a nut job for claiming that dinosaurs roamed an unexplored plateau in the Amazon, and company returned to the jungle to look for an explorer lost in the last journey.
Dengue Fever's score played a crucial part in revitalizing, and even recontextualizing, the silent for contemporary viewers. The band thwarted my theremin expectations but fulfilled my prediction that the group would go for Yma Sumac-style '50s/'60s-era exotica. That they did, with a dose of groovy horn-inflected funk for the newsroom scenes and collegiate debates. The combo took it down subtly for the quieter scenes and exploded into quasi-free-jazzy flurries for the moments when the dinos go wild. Most effective: the placement of Chhom Nimol's achingly lovely Khmer vocals, which entered soaring at the first sight of the dinosaurs, as sketches in a diary. For their trouble, the Dengue Fever players received a standing O as they swiftly, shyly shuffled out of the orchestra pit.
The band had a personal connection to the movie, SFIFF programmer Sean Uyehara explained during his intro to the film: one Lost World bit player happened to be the great-grandfather of a member in Dengue Fever's crew. Another tidbit: the film society plans to present newly commissioned scores to silents more than once a year. Later this year expect to see and hear Stephin Merritt performing his music to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which, Uyehara said, may be the first part in a trilogy.