Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), surely one of the least-seen examples of early classic horror cinema, is presented here by Masters of Cinema in a restored version that finally does justice to this sadly ahead-of-its-time work. Apparently undertaken as a more commercial effort after the failure of Dreyer’s earlier The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927), Vampyr was nevertheless similarly dismissed and misunderstood, resulting in Dreyer not making another film for nearly a decade.
The story of the film itself is deceptively simple – Allan Gray, a young man devoted to seeking out the supernatural, stumbles across a small village plagued by an outbreak of vampirism, and soon finds himself drawn into the struggle to save a young woman from the titular vampire and her various minions.
What elevates it above the other clunky gothics of the era is the style and approach taken in telling this story. Vampyr has been described as a “waking dream”, and is indeed one of the most surreal and subtly nightmarish genre films of all time. What distinguishes it is the power of Dreyer’s imagery and his refusal to explain it…
Shadows scurry and dance independently of their owners, dirt flies back onto a gravedigger’s shovel, the hero witnesses his own death and internment in a coffin. All of this achieved through the simplest of means. In this respect, the film brings to mind the work of David Lynch, whose films achieve a similarly dreamlike intensity, often by likewise utilising the most basic of cinematic tricks. I would be greatly surprised to find that Lynch were not a fan of Vampyr, especially given his avowed hatred of narrative explanation (not to mention the deadpan performance style favoured both by him and Dreyer’s film).
Unlike many other early sound films, Dreyer refused to let his camera be a prisoner of the primitive technology that kept scenes static and visual movement to a minimum. He preferred instead to post-synchronise the soundtrack, meaning that he was free to move the camera as much as he wished. In Vampyr, the camera prowls and roams incessantly, almost becoming another character on occasion.
This visual energy helps to give the film a much more modern feel than most of its contemporaries. In fact, the only thing that really dates the work is the over-reliance on a book of vampire lore as an expositional device. Whether this was because audiences of the time were not as up to speed on the legends as are the Buffy-loving public of today, or simply that Dreyer felt unable to entirely abandon narrative (this was, after all, intended as a “commercial” work) is unclear, but whenever a character sits down to plod through another page of vampiric facts and figures for the umpteenth time, you do tend to find yourself wishing for a pair of editorial scissors.
Regardless, this is still a fresh and original work, nearly eighty years on from its making. Having previously only seen the film in a washed-out VHS version (which I found to be a bit of a struggle), watching this DVD was something of a revelation. Print damage in a film this old is unavoidable, but given that older copies of the film bordered on the unwatchable, Masters of Cinema (rapidly becoming the UK’s answer to Criterion) are to be commended for the care and attention they have put into this release. Hopefully it will result in Vampyr being more widely seen by the genre fans of today, at least those interested in where horror films came from and what they could still be. Extras
Not all of the bountiful extras herein were available at the time of review, but the main supplemental attraction of this edition has to be the exclusive commentary track recorded by Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro, one of the best yak-trackers in the business, provides a typically illuminating and insightful look at a film that has obviously been a source of much inspiration to him and others. If only the rather dry and fussy second commentary by film critic Tony Rayns were as worthwhile a listen.
Other supplements include a “visual essay” on the film, which provides useful background information and is a lot more interesting than it sounds; a pair of deleted scenes restoring cuts made by the French censors at the time (the unexpurgated scenes do play better, but unfortunately the sound elements are absent, which I imagine is the reason for them not being incorporated into the film proper); two documentaries: one on Carl Dreyer and another on Baron Nicolas de Gunzbung, the film’s star and financial backer; and a detailed 78 page booklet providing production notes, stills and essays on the film and its restoration.
Vampyr is out on August 25th