“Death is waiting…”
Spanning more than 45 years and containing just 14 feature films (as well as a handful of documentary shorts), the Carl Theodor Dreyer filmography may not be the most abundant in cinema history, but it is one of the most distinguished and distinct. His 1928 masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, could justifiably be considered the greatest silent film ever made, while Vampyr, his controversial follow-up released four years later, is equally matchless in its own peculiar fashion. As Dreyer’s first sound film (with sound barely, though imaginatively, integrated), this 1932 horror tale never quite attains the lofty caliber of its immediate predecessor. It is, however, as unique as any other Dreyer production, and is boldly divergent from any other film of the era.
With a screenplay by Dreyer and Christen Jul, Vampyr was loosely inspired by elements of Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, an 1872 collection of supernatural stories, one of which, “Carmilla,” involved vampires with what has been called a “lesbian subtext.” Rising from that rudimentary foundation, Dreyer’s film stars Julian West as Allan Grey, a young man who conspicuously arrives in the portentous village of Courtempierre. He is a student of devil worship and vampires. “Preoccupied with superstitions of centuries past,” explanatory intertitles state (establishing the malleable reality of all that transpires), “he became a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred.” Lodging at the town’s inn, Allan encounters a host of unsettling inhabitants, all of whom behave in a curiously stilted manner. There is an elderly woman, Marguerite, the vampiric matriarch played by Henriette Gérard; the Lord of the Manor (Maurice Schutz); his daughters, Gisèle (Rena Mandel), the youngest, and Léone (Sybille Schmitz), who is soon stricken by a cursed affliction; and there is the Village Doctor (Jan Hieronimko), a sly servant to Marguerite’s mortal conspiracy. Already infatuated with all things paranormal, Allan is spurred on and enlightened by a book about vampirism, and from there, the film enters a realm of pervasive evil and encroaching death.
The unearthly investigation is itself par for the vampire movie course, but there is little about Vampyr’s formal execution that aligns with any prior or subsequent genre entry. Shot on location in the French towns of Senlis and Montargis, with Dreyer, a Dane, directing, a German studio, Tobis-Klangfilm, producing, and versions of the film recorded with German, French, and English-language audio tracks, this was a complex, multinational undertaking. To assist in at least keeping the film’s essential visual schematic intact, Dreyer enlisted cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who had worked with the director on the 1924 film, Michael, as well as The Passion of Joan of Arc (and who would have a distinguished Hollywood career to come, receiving five consecutive Oscar nominations from 1941 to 1945). With haunting fine art influences and surreal roots in German Expressionism and the avant-garde work of Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau, Vampyr is a hypnotizing gothic potpourri. Fixed compositions are embossed like antique engravings (a farmer seen from the back, scythe in hand, his posture and framing a work of rigid stone), while low-key cinematic tricks include double exposures (to duplicate Allan’s existence, setting up an extraordinary out-of-body burial sequence) and artful, animate silhouettes (darkened, dancing specters cast upon wall; a limping soldier whose shadow reconnects with his injured body). Hoping to capture what he said was the fog found in Le Fanu’s book, Dreyer highlights what began as a happy accident in processing—a diffused luster—to create one of the movie’s more arresting illustrative touches. Shooting through a piece of gauze and filming exterior scenes only at dawn, to render a certain light, Vampyr has an almost liquescent shimmer, with gradations of black and white that diffuse amongst the surrounding shade, foliage, and neighboring bodies of water.
These scenic accents notwithstanding, Vampyr is mostly a work of internal, psychological horror. Foreshadowing what Tony Rayns points to as the film’s ambivalent “subjectivity,” Dreyer declared he, “wanted to create a waking dream on screen and show that horror is not to be found in the things around us but in our own subconscious.” As a result, Dreyer and Maté adopt an unsettled point of view, with a disjunctive “plentitude of images” (Rayns’ words) that defy the laws of science and spatial geography. An exceptionally picturesque work (the emphasis on visuals in lieu of dialogue helped avoid the difficulties of recording three different languages), Vampyr is more about expressing evasive sensations, not necessarily specific emotions. Dreyer’s camera movements are smooth yet surprising, as if conducted by unseen entities, anticipating character movement but also indicating the clarity and originality of his vision. Combined with an oddly rhythmic progression, erratic cross-cutting, and allusions to plot points never fully assimilated or clarified (often a consequence of script remnants scarcely incorporated or changed altogether for the final film), Vampyr is a mesmerizing formalist achievement. Though Dreyer’s use of sound is comparatively patchy, the conclusion of the picture does wrap up with a fantastic audio-visual parallel, as one character is buried alive in an overflowing flour mill, with the grinding of the machinery set against his anguished mutterings, while Allan and Gisèle drift along a fog-coated river, guided by melodic voices on shore.
A majority of Vampyr’s cast consisted of nonprofessionals, save for, most notably, Schmitz, who gives the only nuanced performance of the film. As for West, whose real name was Nicolas de Gunzburg, his lead role was essentially secured by his ample funding for the picture. As Allan Gray (“Grey” in the French and English versions), his inexperience shows, and his uncertain, disproportionately moderate demeanor leaves him far more passive than he should be when confronted by such uncanny occurrences. Not unlike the other actors, he moves about in a daze, which, perhaps favorably, does actually add to the dreamlike quality of the film and its own unnerving stride.
Dreyer’s stated intention with Vampyr was to break new ground, and as various aspects of the production are covered on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, it would seem he did just that, possibly to the film’s detriment. Alongside a documentary about Dreyer, a video essay by Casper Tybjerg, and a radio broadcast featuring Dreyer, Rayns’ commentary considers the movie’s tumultuous premiere, which left audiences perplexed by the inexplicable figures and events. (Text supplements also strengthen this Criterion release: a booklet with essays by Mark Le Fanu and Kim Newman, details about the film’s restoration, and a 1964 interview with Gunzburg, as well as a book containing Dreyer and Christen Jul’s screenplay and Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.”) For Dreyer, the narrative appears to be of secondary concern, even if on-screen text adds to the mystery of the film, advancing its “hidden meanings” and “sinister forces.” These printed accounts—catching the viewer up on vampire lore, providing historical context, and disclosing tales of the past—prove to be an economical method of heightening the terror and teasing potential danger. But in the end, Vampyr is an intensely lyrical film—“unconventional from the roots up,” as Rayns puts it—and for some viewers, it was more than they were willing to tolerate. Tragically so, as it turned out, for Dreyer wouldn’t end up making another film for more than ten years, directing Day of Wrath in 1943.