1930s, 3.5/4, Carl Th. Dreyer, Horror, Review

Vampyr

Amazon.com: Vampyr Poster Movie 11 x 17 Inches - 28cm x 44cm Julian West  Maurice Schutz Rena Mandel Sybille Schmitz Jan Hieronimko Henriette G?rard  Albert Bras: Prints: Posters & Prints

#5 in my ranking of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s filmography.

Now this is an eerie little movie. Released four years after The Passion of Joan of Arc, his longest hiatus in his career up to this point, Dreyer’s Vampyr is a horror film without any real scares but an incredible sense of unease that steadily builds over its 73 minute runtime. It belongs to a subgenre of film that doesn’t fit comfortably under one main genre easily: the dream. Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and David Lynch’s Lost Highway all exist here moving from slasher to psychosexual thriller and back. Vampyr is akin to a very traditional horror film, but everything moves slowly and nothing follows in any literal sense of logic from one to the next. And yet, the experience is rather pure.

Made in the earliest days of the talkie era (the most interesting few years in movies, in my opinion), there’s not a shot in this film where I feel like sound and image were captured together. The project was originally envisioned as purely a silent film, and elements of that genesis remain in the final picture. However, sound equipment was still painfully primitive at the time, requiring unreasonable limitations on the mechanics of cameras in order to capture sound at the same time. This precluded the use of a lot of motion from cameras, creating fairly staid compositions from the industry for a few years. Even with the advances in sound design that had arisen in the few years since The Jazz Singer, as evidenced in Hitchcock’s inventive camerawork re-emerging in a film like Murder!, it was still out of reach for the inexpensive production that Dreyer had financed through his own money and the money of his star, the Russian-Jewish aristocrat born in Paris Nicolas de Gunzburg, who acted under the pseudonym Julian West for the film. The camera moves around the found locations like in Dreyer’s previous film just as freely, never feeling tied down. To add to the sense of unease of nearly every moment of the film, the sound is often just off because of the primitive tools available at the time to synch up sound with image in post-production.

The minimal story of the film is about a young man, Allan Gray (West), who travels to Courtempierre, a small village. Obsessed with matters of the occult, he takes a room in the local inn and things automatically feel off. There’s an old, disfigured man in the room above him. Another old man inexplicably walks into his locked room while he’s in bed, leaves a package on his desk with a note to open it in the event of the man’s death, and disappears back out the door. Gray gets up to explore, and he meets an old doctor with a large mustache in an seemingly abandoned and obviously dilapidated building.

The doctor (Jan Hieronimko) and his introductory scene are really unnerving. I haven’t seen it described anywhere in anything I’ve read about the movie’s production, but it feels like this scene was filmed backwards, the audio recorded backwards, and then it was all played backwards when placed in the film. This would be the same technique Lynch used to create the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks to very similar effect. Again, I don’t know if Dreyer actually did this, but the way the doctor moves and speaks, especially in this scene, has an air of artificiality about it that makes it all feel unworldly. I also think it’s a great example of how off everything is in this movie in the best of ways.

Shooed away by the doctor, Gray finds an old manor owned by the old man who visited him in the night. He peers in to watch the old man shot in the back. Forcing his way in, Gray works with the old man’s servant trying to help the old man survive his wounds, only to see him give away a locket to his younger daughter, Gisele. Invited to stay in the house, Gray remembers the package from the old man and opens it to find a book. Now, this movie is all kinds of wonderful, but the exposition reveal around the titular vampire is off in the wrong way. It’s all revealed through Gray and the old man’s servant reading text from this book. It’s a mixture of standard vampire lore (which would have most likely been pretty new to audiences back in 1932) with some extra rules, but the delivery, essentially as a series of intertitles that simply last too long, is a fairly dull way to introduce this information.

Anyway, what we learn is that there’s a vampire about, and the vampire probably has a human servant helping it. Also, the only way to kill it is with a metal steak through its heart as it sleeps in its coffin. Again, it’s what has become pretty standard vampire stuff. Being one of the two major vampire films of the time (the other being Murnau’s Nosferatu), I imagine that the film’s influence over the genre is hard to discern when combined with the lore derived from Dracula the novel.

The vampire is an old woman, Marguerite Chopin, referred to in the book, and she sneaks in to drink the blood of Gisele’s older sister, Leone. This will turn Leone into a vampire herself unless something is done about it. But first, Gray offers his own blood to the doctor to save Leone’s life. There is a creepy dream sequence as Gray convalesces, waking up to discover that Gisele has been kidnapped. Here is where the movie enters full dream-logic mode as Gray gives chase to find Gisele, falls asleep on a bench, and disassociates from his own body to wander into the doctor’s dingy office where he watches where the doctor, the vampire’s human servant, has hidden Gisele. To add to it all, Gray looks into a casket and sees himself, reassociating with his body there. When the casket gets nailed just and moved, he returns to his body on the bench, helps the old man’s servant uncover the vampire’s resting place, running the stake through her heart, and finally runs to the office where he frees Gisele.

As you might be able to tell, this movie simply abandons literal sense after a certain point, and it works because it’s a dream. Well, is it literally Gray’s dream? I wouldn’t go that far, but he’s definitely descending into some kind of dream reality where rules of reality get broken, often for inexplicable reasons. It’s not about the literal journey but about the feeling the movie imparts to the audience. This is a movie that really gets under your skin, that just eats at you progressively as more and more unnatural images invade the screen to the point where the movie makes its break from literal reality completely obvious, we can just go along with it, hooked on the emotion of the moment.

Really, my only problem with this movie is the exposition on the rules of the vampire. Outside of that, this is my kind of horror movie. No jump scares, just a film that knows how to get at the subconscious and mess with it.

Rating: 3.5/4

5 thoughts on “Vampyr”

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