Horror Film Review: Vampyr (dir by Carl Thedor Dryer)

A dream of dark and disturbing things….

Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg, performing under the name Julian West) might be a student of the occult or he might just be a man having a dream within a dream.  He’s handsome with just enough of an aristocratic bearing to be intriguing.  His face is strangely blank.  Whenever we see him, we wonder if he’s awake or if he’s asleep.  We’re reminded of Werner Herzog’s film Heart of Glass, in which the entire cast recited their lines while hypnotized.

Allan’s come to a small village in France.  It’s a quaint little place, probably the type that most tourist would consider to be quite beautiful.  But from the minute that we see it, the entire landscape seems to be off.  The inhabitants of the village seem almost as blank-faced as Allan.  When we see the trees sway in the wind, we’re reminded of  Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and how the nonstop wind drove Lillian Gish mad.

Allan stays in an inn.  He goes to sleep.  When he wakes up, an old man stands in his room.  The old man gives him a package.  The package is not to be opened until the man’s death.  Allan goes outside.  The village is full of shadows.  He watches an old woman and the town’s doctor.  Allan meets with one of the old man’s daughters and learns that her sister is deathly ill.  She needs a blood transfusion.  When Allan reads a book about vampyres, he suspects that both the town and the sisters are being held prisoner.  At times, the events feel almost random but the film has such a hypnotic power that we automatically know that nothing happens by mere chance.

Directed by Carl Theodor Dryer, Vampyr was filmed in 1931 and released in 1932.  This was Dreyer’s first sound film but Vampyr almost seems like a silent film.  It certainly has more in common with Dreyer’s hallucinogenic silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, than it does with Universal’s version of Dracula.  Vampyr feels like a cinematic dream, full of surrealistic images and odd performances.  As a collection of images, Vampyr is one of the most intensely atmospheric film that I’ve ever seen.  Allan, who may be having a dream within a dream, discovers a coffin and is shocked to discover who is inside.  A character is buried alive in flour.  Fogs rolls across the river and a figure with a scythe brings to mind Charon, the ferryman who took the dead to the underworld.  Shadows dance across the screen.  Much like Lucio Fulci’s Beyond trilogy, Vampyr succeeds by creating its own cinematic world, one where reality is solely defined by the images on the screen.  The plot of Vampyr might not always make sense in the real world but it’s perfectly logical in the world created by the film.

Vampyr’s a surreal classic, one that reportedly came close to being a lost film.  Several of the video releases have been technically inferior, though the flickering picture and inconsistent soundtrack of those releases can actually add to the film’s dreamlike power.  It’s been released by the Criterion Collection and that is the ideal version to watch.


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