This is a film from 1932 by Carl Theodor Dreyer, that I guess I had vaguely heard of, but came to my consciousness when Criterion released a version of it and I thought “Hey, I could sure use an early vampire movie right now.” Especially one that is supposed to be all dreamy and hallucinatory. So to me it came, but sadly not in the Criterion version, in an earlier release by Image Entertainment, which has the virtue of also including The Mascot, a fascinating 1934 study in stop-motion animation.
Okay, so Vampyr begins with a short overture, then a card telling us that this guy, Allan Gray, studies “devil worship and vampire terror,” and has gotten so into his studies that “the boundaries between the worlds became dim.” He arrives in the town of Courtempierre, where he tries to get into this inn. He sees this man wandering around with a scythe. Then he’s finally let into the inn and shown to his room.
Now I thought this film was going to be silent, but there is actually muffled music and strange, distorted voices, which adds to the general weird dreaminess of it. Further adding to this is the fact that the film has been “flashed” before shooting. Now I know you’re asking “What could exposing one’s genitals to a piece of film possibly do to the process?” but “flashing” in this sense means that they opened the film canister for a second before shooting, lending the entire film a hazy, dreamlike look.
So after Allan finally gets to sleep, he wakes in the middle of the might to find a stricken old man coming into his room and staring at him. It’s pretty creepy! The old man leaves him a package and writes on it: “To be opened after my death.” Then follows a long, enthralling sequence of experimental film technique, in which we see film run backwards, a pan along a long wall of shadows cast by dancers, a slow near-360 degree pan around a room, and a still life shot in which a skull on a countertop is slowly, slowly turning. Now, when I rented this movie I thought it would be a good thing to turn on when you’re tired, and could just lay there letting it wash over you while in a daze, but no! There’s so much going on here at times you literally can’t take your eyes off it.
Anyway, the guy dies, and Allan opens the book. It is a history of vampires. Soon after there is this woman who is slowly getting sick, and wakes with bites on her neck, and we all know what that means. One evening it really seems like she has died, and suddenly becomes possessed by this weird satanic grin, which fades to a scowl when she sees a nun. She wakes in the morning back to normal, but still really sick.
Then this doctor who looks like Mark Twain comes on the case. He watches over the woman and asks Allan to give blood for her. Meanwhile, this guy reads from the book, and we get long passages on cards that mysteriously end right in the middle of sentences. I forgot to mention that although there is dialogue, one cannot understand it, and there are subtitles for choice bits that drive the story.
SPOILERS > > >
Okay, so now is when things get incomprehensible, at least to me, on this first viewing. After giving blood, Allan complains that he is still losing blood, to which the nurse replies that this is nonsense. I had never thought about the contrast between a vampire taking blood and a doctor drawing blood, but it seems to be played on here. Soon Allan enters a dream, and at one point sits down and is double-exposed, i.e. there are two of them. One of them gets up and walks away, leaving the other one there, which implies to me that he is dead, but really only means that he has left his body behind. Also, a lot of the shadows we saw earlier were shadows that had left their bodies. I know all this because I read an intensive study of the film in the time since I started this review [i.e. I didn't pick it up from the film itself].
Anyway, the see-through Allan goes into this house and sees his own corpse! Then he sees from the perspective of his immobile body as the lid of the coffin is put on, and watches as a man puts screws in it. He is taken through the house—and we see the ceiling passing above him, then suddenly we come outside, and see leaves of trees passing above him [hard to describe, but it’s a total mind-blower].
Now, we have learned [from the book] that there was a vampire in town, and it names her, and they go and drive an iron stake [it’s iron in this one] through her heart, and her body turns into a skeleton. When this happens, the sick woman from earlier is visibly set free. BUT! What of the servants of the vampire? HUH?
Now comes something that I actually found quite creepy and a little scary. The doc [who actually turns out to be a bad guy—who knew?] goes into this room and we see the shadows of a bird on the glass door. We are hearing heavy music and staticy sound and then the soundtrack suddenly turns to laughing, and the doctor bolts from the room, runs frantically down the hall, then out of the house. The camera pans over and his assistant [the one who put the screws in the coffin] is laying down on the stairs, having fallen. It’s all so surreal and sudden and inexplicable that it’s quite effectively unnerving.
The doctor—who, come to find out, was actually one of the servants of the vampire and was, in fact, using his patients as a vampiric buffet, runs into this mill, gets trapped in a flour… THING, and gets covered in flour and dies. While this is going on. Allan takes the young woman he has rescued, rows her through fog to a mysterious place, and they walk through the trees toward this light. The end!
< < < SPOILERS END
I REALLY liked it. It’s not as dreary and dull as Nosferatu [sorry!], and I personally found it much more involving and creepy. It seems to be quite simple, but is actually incredibly hard to follow—I was happy to learn that a lot of it actually DOESN’T make sense, and it wasn’t just me being dense. And when I did find out some of these things—the girls were sisters, the shadows were ghosts, some of the characters were servants of the vampire—it was all a total shock, as I didn’t get any of that from my first viewing of the film.
What you do get is just a dreamy, surreal and marvelously evocative little film. As I said, I had the feeling I couldn’t blink or I would miss something. There is a lot of fascinating early film technique on display, innovations popping out all over the place, and it really is enthralling. I would lay big money that David Lynch took a great deal from this film, including massive portions of Eraserhead, and the idea of pairing a mysterious image with a blast of nonsensical sound. Only here, that noise might really have been an accident.
Anyway, if you’re in the mood for something old, dreamy, beautiful and QUITE interesting, go for Vampyr! I totally want to see all of Dreyer’s movies now.
Yes! You have to realize that it’s quite early, but it’s very beautiful and evocative.