Vampyr: Criterion Collection
July 30, 2008
Made in 1930 during the early days of sound, Vampyr (1932) was based on In A Glass Darkly, a collection of supernatural stories by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and filmed in three languages (English, French and German) by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The film exists in prints of various lengths, arrangements of scenes, and under alternate titles.
Allan Gray (West) is fascinated by the study of Devil worship and vampires and this leads him to a secluded village called Courtempierre where we are greeted by an ominous image of a man ringing the town bell while holding a scythe – unsettling foreshadowing perhaps? During his stay at the local inn, Allan encounters a deformed man and wisely locks his door. Something strange is afoot but Allan decides to stick around and investigate.
He enters a building and shadows of people, but without an actual physical presence, are visible. During his travels around the village, Allan discovers a woman that has been bitten by a vampire. Title card inserts convey the basics of vampirism: its traits and how to combat them. The richly textured black and white cinematography really enhances the creepy mood of the film, giving it the feel of a waking dream and appears to follow its own logic.
Julian West looks uncannily like famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, which is rather fitting for this eerie, atmospheric film. One of the title cards even describes his character as a dreamer – another important trait in Lovecraft’s world. At times, one wonders if Allan exists in a shadow world where nothing is real. The cast was largely made up of amateur actors with the exception of two: Sybille Schmitz and Maurice Schutz. However, Dreyer was predominantly concerned with creating an atmosphere of dread.
Vampyr is an unconventional vampire film that constantly subverts the generic conventions through disjointed editing and the lack of an objective or subjective point-of-view. We are never quite sure where we are in various locations and this disorientation confounded audiences when the film debuted in 1932. It was originally regarded as an artistic failure and this left Dreyer very depressed. He did not make another film for ten years but he has since been vindicated over time as Vampyr is now regarded as a masterpiece.
The first disc features an audio commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns. He briefly takes us through the film’s production and its critical reception. He also gives us a quick biographical sketch of actor Julian West and Carl Dreyer. Rayns points out that the shots don’t match and that there is an intentional disjunction going on. While it is definitely a genre film, he points out that the film is anchored in ambiguity. Rayns goes on to analyze the film’s style in this informative if not slightly dry track.
The second disc starts off with “Carl Th. Dreyer,” a 30-minute documentary about the career of the filmmaker. There are all kinds of fantastic archival footage of the man. Admirers like Francois Truffaut, Henri-Georges Clouzot and others speak highly of his work in this excellent portrait.
Also included is a “Visual Essay” that utilizes archival still images, clips and scenes censored by German authorities to examine the research that went into and the influences on Dreyer’s Vampyr. This essay provides fascinating insight into various aspects of Vampyr.
Finally, there is a “Radio Broadcast” of Dreyer reading an essay on film for a radio program in 1958. He speaks eloquently and without being bogged down by needless film theory.
In a nice touch, the screenplay for the film is included, allowing you to follow along in case you get lost and are trying to figure out what’s going on.