Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

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A man educated in the ways of the occult finds himself at an inn outside of Paris. There he discovers strange happenings and a curious old man who manages to lure him back to his castle where he resides with his two daughters. Discovering one of the girls is gravely ill due to anemia, the man begins to suspect that a vampire may be the root cause of the problem.
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Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr certainly deserves its place in the annals of horror.  Based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s supernatural story collection In a Glass Darkly (including of course the very influential novella Carmilla), Dreyer has managed to create a dream-like transcendental experience unlike any other. Through clever camera trickery and the brilliant manipulation of shadow to the clever use of sound, Vampyr is a very dark and brooding film, and has doubtless inspired many a filmmaker since its inception. Since the film was Dreyer’s first sound film and was intended on being presented in German, English, and French, the dialogue is kept to a minimum; instead the bulk of the story is revealed via silent film styled title cards.  This lack of dialogue lends an eerie atmosphere to the film as the viewer is left to his or her own interpretation of what’s being shown on screen. Moreover, Vampyr is very esoteric in its approach, at times leaving the viewer to wonder what exactly is real and what isn’t.
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Allan Grey, the main protagonist in the film, is a student of the occult arts and is resultantly more attuned to the more supernatural goings-on around the inn. As he explores his surroundings, he encounters all manner of strange occurrences; a creepy fellow carrying a scythe and rhythmically ringing a bell ominously, shadows that detach from their owners, have a life all their own and at times seem to move in reverse, etc.. This is all filmed in a very eerie, almost blurred manner – an effect that was achieved by filming though a piece of gauze held three feet in front of the camera. It’s innovations and ideas like this that make Dreyer’s vision really come to life, and gives the film a very unique, almost older presence.
COSDS-Vampyr00011Given the time period, Vampyr obviously doesn’t have any really graphic or shocking elements to it; where it really stands out is the atmosphere that is created within the film and the way the subject of vampirism is approached and explained to the viewer. Read from a book that was left to Allan Grey by a strange old man with the implicit instruction to not open it until he is dead (and then soon has the courtesy of getting murdered), the folklore surrounding vampirism is explained in excerpts from the book. Certain aspects of the mythology that have been overlooked or irreversibly altered throughout the years in countless vampire epics are on offer here and I for one found it very refreshing to take everything back to the roots so to speak. For example: vampires are in league with the Prince of Darkness, those victims of a vampire attack are damned for eternity and their assailants will make every attempt to force the victim to commit suicide so that their souls will belong to the devil, and vampires can only be set free by being “murdered” via an iron bar through the heart.
COSDS-Vampyr00023The story is kept simple, and rightly so. The pacing is quite slow, but the peculiar visuals are engrossing enough to hold the viewer’s attention as the mood is so meticulously set. This was certainly more of an experimental film especially if compared to the monster movies that Universal was starting to produce around the same time. Where those films are very polished and painstaking in their presentation, Vampyr appears as if to have been unearthed from some kind of crypt in comparison. As rough as it looks, it’s got some very resilient imagery that will be certainly be remembered for years to come; the whole scene where Allan Grey (through a  vision) experiences his own burial is absolutely captivating and will likely never be replicated to the same effect. Also of note is the staking scene which albeit very tame is very  effective, as well as the doctor’s bleak demise as he is trapped in a flour mill and slowly buried alive (a scene which irked German censors so badly that they demanded it be toned down).
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Vampyr was met with much contempt upon release with audiences booing it in Berlin, and the film  inadvertently caused a violent riot in Vienna when audiences demanded their money back and were refused. When the film was to premier in Copenhagen Dreyer refused to show up, suffering a nervous breakdown and being committed to a mental hospital in France soon after. Needless to say, the film was a financial disaster. That being said, I personally think the film was just way ahead of its time. It’s certainly not going to tickle everyone’s fancy, but there is much to be learned from Dreyer’s technique and presentation if nothing else. The style contained therein speaks of a brilliance that I fear few people will ever truly understand.
Vampyr is undoubtedly a film of great import and those interested in filmmaking as well as those desiring something a bit different in their horror repertoire would do well to seek it out. If you can tolerate slow pacing and just take in the moodiness of the film for what it is, you will most likely find it a very enjoyable glimpse into the mind of a misunderstood visionary.
Official COSDS Nunspank Rating:
NS-4
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Duane co-founded The Church of Splatter-Day Saints in 2005. When not immersed in film he's enjoying good whiskey, smoking meat in the backyard or thinking about sluts. He makes a damn fine habanero fire sauce.

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