Vampyr (1932)

This German-French co-production, which is very loosely based on the writings of Sheridan Le Fanu, was directed and co-written by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Originally, the film was produced with German, French and English audio versions. And it has been cut and re-cut several times for release in different markets, mostly with titles that stick close to the original title Vampyr, but in the US under at least two different titles (Castle of Doom and Not Against the Flesh). Apparently, all originals have since been lost (picture as well as sound) and only incomplete French and German copies exist from which a restored version (ca. 1998) has been cobbled together.

Even though there is some spoken dialogue in Vampyr, stylistically this is, for all intents and purposes, basically still a silent film. There are some great images, and many memorable scenes. Light and shadow are employed in the usual effective manner one is used to from black&white horror films, but Vampyr offers an intriguing addition by having shadows appear as supernatural entities in their own right.

As far as sets, set decorations, and props are concerned, Dreyer throws in a lot of traditional Gothic elements, including an empty coffin, a cabinet of curiosities, and hints of alchemy.

The plot is somewhat jumpy and incoherent, which is probably partly down to the existence of a variety of cuts, some made by the director himself as early as 1932.

An opening text informs us that the location is the French village of Courtempierre, and that the young man we are about to see is Allan Gray. We are informed that Mr Gray is interested in the supernatural and that his studies of the occult have caused him to lose sight of what is real and what is fantasy.
Gray spends the night at an inn in the village, but the inn is full of very weird people. During this rather restless night, Gray leaves his bed and strolls around some neighbouring property and sees even more strange fellows and some frightening apparitions. Gray’s nightly odyssey finally leads him to an old castle just at the very moment as the owner is being murdered.

And it is only now, after some 22 minutes, that the film begins to get something resembling a plot.

The murdered man leaves behind some elderly staff members and two frightened daughters, one of whom has fallen very ill of late. Through a book left behind by the father, Gray learns about the dangers posed by vampires.

Throughout the rest of the film, whenever someone reads in the book, pages of the book are shown on camera so that the audience can read the text. So these pages take the place traditionally taken in silent films by intertitle cards. That way, these pages, which contain a good deal of vampire lore, provide a lot of exposition.

The rest of the film is a race against time to find and kill the local vampire in order to save the soul of a young woman infected by the curse.

In general, this plot plays out just as you would expect, but there is no deduction, no big revelation, no surprise, because all the answers are provided for you from the beginning and one particular piece of information is found in the aforementioned book, which is far too coincidental and convenient.

The way these events unfold, and the odd pacing of this film, both suggest that Dreyer was not going for suspense here. This is no mystery, it is a fever dream; and I believe the audience was meant to experience horror not through suspense but through the sublime (in good old Gothic tradition).

Apart from the visual aspects already mentioned earlier, Dreyer employs a number of “special effects”, most importantly a dream sequence which uses what I assume to be double exposure. And in terms of cinematography, there is an unusual perspective shot from inside a carried coffin, so the audience witnesses the ceiling, faces, sky, and tree-branches, all passing by overhead as if the audience themselves were witnessing the events from inside their own coffins.

There is not much that can be said about the acting, as the focus in this film lies so heavily on the visual aesthetics. As far as I know, only Maurice Schutz (the castle owner) and Sybille Schmitz (his ill daughter) were professional actors. All other roles were filled by amateurs, with the leading role of Allan Gray going to the film’s main investor, who was going by the pseudonym “Julian West”.

Despite its name and subject matter, this is not so much a vampire film and more of a general “scary tale”. As a horror film it offers modern audiences no scares and little entertainment. But as a piece of film history, it shows you a lot of technical workmanship, from the camera work, the use of light and shadow, and on to the “special effects”. It is recommended for film students and people interested in the history of filmmaking – and as it is just over 70 minutes long you do not need to invest too much time for it.

Rating: roughly 5.5 to 6.0 out of 10

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