Director: Carl Th. Dereyer
Screenplay: Christen Jul and Carl Th. Dreyer (based on the novel In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu)
Stars: Julian West (Allan Grey), Maurice Schutz (Lord of the Manor), Rena Mandel (Gisèle), Sybille Schmitz (Léone), Jan Hieronimko (Village Doctor), Henriette Gérard (Woman from the Cemetery), Albert Bras (Old Servant), N. Babanini (Servant’s Wife), Jane Mora (Nurse)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1932
Country: France / Germany
Vampyr Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Shadows are inherently creepy—unnerving, you might say. While taking the form and shape of that which casts them, they have no actual presence or substance, hence they are both real and unreal. In a sense, they are absence incarnate in that they exist by denying the presence of light, thus they are defined by what they are not, rather than what they are. There is no life to them, yet they often signal the presence of something living, which is why a shadow moving independently of its source is perhaps the most uncanny image imaginable. This idea seems to be the very foundation of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey), a masterfully evocative and unsettling horror film that failed to find the audience it deserved in the early 1930s because its challenging tone and unorthodox structure was upstaged by Tod Browning’s more conventional approach to the genre in Dracula (1931).

The irony is that Dreyer had set out to make what, in his mind, would be a “commercial film,” but his unique artistic sensibilities and spiritual leanings virtually ensured that it would be anything but. At the time Vampyr was made, the “horror film” was still in its nascent stage, a barely defined category that included only a handful of films (that would change, of course, in the wake of Universal’s extremely popular horror films of the 1930s and their rash of imitators). In fact, prior to Vampyr, the vampire as we know it had graced the silver screen only once in F.W. Murnau’s expressionistic Nosferatu (1922). While Browning’s version of Dracula would beat Vampyr to theaters and thus predate it in the popular imagination, Dreyer’s film was actually the first to go into production.

Although the credits state that Vampyr is based on In a Glass Darkly, a collection of five novellas by the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, it draws only loosely on two of the stories, most notably “Carmilla,” a tale of a beautiful female vampire who feeds on young female victims (do I even need to mention the lesbian subtext?). Dreyer and his coscreenwriter Christen Jul also seem to have drawn at least partially from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, as well as from all kinds of folk tales and occult stories, which gives their film an authentic, organic tone that makes it feel ancient, even though it is set in the (then) modern world.

The nominal hero of the story is Allan Grey (Nicolas de Gunzburg, the film’s financier, acting under the name Julian West), who is described in an opening title card as a young man who has “immersed himself in the study of devil worship and vampires” and, as a result, has become “a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred.” However, Dreyer appears to be only vaguely interested in Grey as a character, which is underscored by the fact that his role as the protagonist and primary mover of the narrative is usurped halfway through the film by an old servant (Albert Bras). Rather, the spectral atmosphere, which feels as if it were ripped directly from the subconscious, is the film’s main character. Dreyer weaves the film’s tone out of actual locations (a deserted chateau, a decrepit factory, various woods and fields) and a brooding, persistent visual sensibility that makes startling use of tracking shots, discontinuous editing, reverse photography, and framing that allows characters to enter and leave the screen at unexpected points.

Even though it is technically a synchronous sound film, shot with a variable density soundtrack, from an aesthetic standpoint, Vampyr is a perfect summation of the pinnacle to which silent film art had reached by the end of the 1920s. Dreyer had already proved his mastery of the form with The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and it is not surprising that he shot Vampyr like a silent film, with only minimal bits of dialogue that he ambitiously shot in three different language (German, French, and English) to avoid the use of subtitles in international distribution. Vampyr’s silent-film heritage can be seen in everything from the fluidity of the camera movement (almost impossible in the early 1930s with bulky sound-on-location equipment), to the use of lengthy intertitles to explain story points and later a heavy reliance on a book of vampire lore to fill in the blanks about the nature of the film’s supernatural villain.

The supernatural element in Vampyr pervades its every frame, which is precisely what makes it such an evocative experience and may also be why audiences initially rejected it as difficult and confusing. While there is a vampire in the film, a hulking old crone named Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard) who is aided and abetted by a frazzled-looking village doctor (Jan Hieronimko), Dreyer does not limit the film’s supernatural suggestiveness to her activities (in fact, there is technically only one vampire “attack” in the whole film, which is staged as a beautifully horrific variation on Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare). Rather, Dreyer draws from all kinds of supernatural lore, giving us shadowy figures who drift throughout the film; strange, inexplicable characters, including a man with a large scythe, who enter and leave the story without explanation; and a constant merging of waking reality and dream states, which culminates in the most famous sequence in the film where Allan Gray dreams that he is paralyzed and encased in a coffin with a glass window—as unnerving a portrait of living death as has ever been committed to celluloid.

The word “inexplicable” best defines most of Vampyr, which appears to both a conscious decision of Dreyer’s to forsake easy explanation in favor of provoking the audience to decide for themselves what is real and what is unreal, as well as the unfortunate result of editing the film after its disastrous first screening. When done poorly, the inexplicable can result in Ed Wood-style camp, where the narrative gaps and logical pitfalls are clearly the product of general inanity. However, when it is done with style and purpose—a willful refusal to give everything a tidy explanation and make all the ends fit together—it can result in a truly memorable and frightening experience.

Interestingly, just after viewing Vampyr, I happened to read a column by novelist Stephen King about why so many big-budget, big-studio horror movies don’t work, and part of his assessment is as perfect a summation of Vampyr as I can imagine: “[N]ightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” So, even though I don’t know why the shadows move the way they do in Vampyr, I feel the uncanny effect they have on me, and that’s all I need.

Vampyr Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.19:1
AudioGerman Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns
  • Carl Th. Dreyer (1966), documentary by Jørgen Roos
  • Visual essay by scholar Casper Tybjerg
  • Radio broadcast from 1958 of Dreyer reading an essay about filmmaking
  • Book featuring Dreyer and Christen Jul’s original screenplay and Sheridan Le Fanu 1872 story “Carmilla”
  • Insert booklet featuring new essays by Mark Le Fanu and Kim Newman, Koerber on the restoration, and a 1964 interview with producer and star Nicolas de Gunzburg
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 10, 2017

    Criterion’s Blu-ray of Vampyr appears to use the same high-definition transfer that was used for their 2008 DVD, which was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive of the 1998 restoration by Cineteca di Bologna, Deutsche Kinemathek, and ZDF/Arte (that means it is the most complete version of the film currently known to exist). Like the DVD, the Blu-ray offers the option of either the original German-language version or a version that replaces the German intertitles with English text (the dialogue remains in German with subtitles). The transfer was also done in the correct 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which is a result of the usual 1.33:1 frame losing some real estate to the variable-density soundtrack. As far as image quality goes, it is generally very good—certainly the best I’ve ever see the film look—although it is far from perfect, which is to be expected since Vampyr is 85 years old and all of the original elements have been long lost. The restoration was pieced together from all the best existing elements, which results in uneven picture quality that ranges from very sharp and detailed, to soft and grainy. There is visible damage in the form of scratches, vertical lines, and occasional missing frames, but for a film of its age and with such a spotty archival history, it looks as good as possible. The monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the restored 35mm optical soundtrack negative and sounds really good. The orchestral score by Wolfgang Zeller, which blankets most of the film, sounds very good for its age, and the various creepy sounds maintain their effectiveness. There is steady ambient hiss throughout, but nothing unexpected or unduly distracting. There are a few points when the sound suddenly and seemingly inexplicably drops out, which was present on the DVD, as well, and is most likely the result of gaps in the existing source material.

    Criterion has included the full range of supplements that appeared on their DVD, starting with an informative screen-specific audio commentary by film scholar, critic, and festival programmer Tony Rayns, a Criterion regular. In the film’s brief 73 minutes, Rayns is quite efficient in packing the commentary with both background information and sharp visual analysis. Further analysis of the film can be found in a 36-minute visual essay by Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg. This essay includes incisive analysis over clips from the film, as well as clips from interviews with Dreyer, still images of the film’s various influences, and, most crucially, two segments from the film that were cut by the German censor (Allan hammering an iron stake into Marguerite Chopin and additional shots of the doctor being buried in flour) that only exist in French-language prints. We also have Carl Th. Dreyer, a half-hour 1966 documentary by Jørgen Roos that chronicles Dreyer’s career, as well as a 1958 radio broadcast of Dreyer reading an essay about filmmaking. Once again, the disc is packaged with an insert booklet that features essays by Mark Le Fanu (on the film itself) and Kim Newman (on the film’s relationship to other vampire movies), a reprinted essay by Martin Koerber about the restoration, and a 1964 interview with producer and star Nicolas de Gunzburg, as well as a soft-bound book featuring Dreyer and Christen Jul’s original screenplay and the entire text of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 story “Carmilla.”

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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