Of all the legendary early horror films Carl Theodor Dreyer’s vampire nightmare was once the most difficult to appreciate — until Criterion’s restoration of a mostly intact, un-mutilated full cut. Dreyer creates his fantasy according to his own rules — this pallid, claustrophobic horror is closer to Ordet than it is Dracula or Nosferatu.
The Criterion Collection 437
1932 / Color / 1:19 Movietone Ap. / 73 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 3, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: Julian West (Baron Nicolas De Gunzberg), Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Henriette Gérard.
Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Art Direction: Hermann Warm
Film Editor: Tonka Taldy
Original Music: Wolfgang Zeller
Written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Christen Jul from In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu
Produced by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Julian West
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr is a tough row to hoe for horror fans, many of whom just plain haven’t given it a chance. If you can understand the creeping insecurity of J-Horror, or appreciate the graphic unease of David Lynch, it shouldn’t be that tough. This horror classic is an original experimental masterpiece, almost unrelated to German Expressionism or Universal’s tradition of frights. It was certainly treated like an experimental art picture, and not fully distributed in a version expressing its full glory.
Back before Universal’s Frankenstein and Dracula there really was no established horror genre. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu are highly original, artistic silent films that were soon recognized as classics, with Nosferatu so popular that it reached audiences everywhere despite being caught up in a plagiarism dispute. But Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr remained obscure. An early German talkie basically stylized as a silent, Dreyer’s film creates a surreal mental space of its own. The closest thing at the time was Jean Cocteau, and Blood of a Poet wasn’t exactly a barn-burner of a commercial hit.
European audiences didn’t go for Vampyr either, and for decades it became a difficult movie to see. 16mm prints that circulated in film schools were pieced together from incomplete French and German versions, with terrible audio quality and unwanted burned-in subtitles. Until Criterion’s 2008 DVD release, the best version available was an Image disc. Most of the film seemed to be intact but half the frame was obscured with black boxes to cover up unwanted European subtitles.
Criterion’s release is based on a 1998 restoration by Martin Koerber and the Cineteca di Bologna. What was once a confusing puzzle can now be seen as a new direction for the horror film, a slow-moving hallucination filled with bizarre visuals. Vampyr locates the uncanny not in the dark but in pale, powdery whiteness.
The tentative storyline ought to appeal to fans of David Lynch’s early experiments. Allan Grey (Julian West) finds strange goings-on at a country inn, and traces them to a lonely house nearby. He can’t be fully certain that some of the things he witnesses are actually happening. Allan’s arrival coincides with the murder (?) of the Lord of the Manor (Maurice Schutz). Daughter Gisèle (Rena Mandel) is terribly frightened, both by her father’s death and by the weakening condition of her sister Léone (Sybille Schmitz). Allan witnesses shadows that move on their own and other signs indicating the presence of the supernatural. The village doctor (Jan Hieronimko) acts suspiciously. Allan fears that the old doctor may be trying to induce Léone to take her own life. But a book left behind by the father informs both Allan and the dependable servant (Albert Bras) of the nature of vampires. Allan has seen a blind old woman (Henriette Gérard) who may indeed be Marguerite Chopin, a centuries-old vampiress said to be responsible for a plague of deaths eleven years before.
Older copies of Vampyr were practically unwatchable. The fragments remaining obscured what can be now appreciated as a conventional vampire tale in which waking reality has been warped by eerie, subjective visions. Audience surrogate Allan Gray joins a household petrified with fright. A simple stroll reveals the neighborhood to be infested with ghostly demons. Allan peers through doors and windows, observing phantom characters. He sees the shadow of a peg-legged man ‘rejoining’ its owner. More demons manifest as disembodied shadows walking along paths in the woods, and dancing in an empty factory. The strange dancing shadows may have influenced the fire-lit rustic Danse Macabre in William Dieterle’s later The Devil and Daniel Webster.
The evocative, frightening visions continue. A Death-like reaper waits at a river crossing. Allan finds the night-gowned Léone draped across a bench in the house’s garden (Top image ↑ ). Gisèle stands tied to a bed-frame, waiting to be sacrificed to the ancient vampire woman. Some of these visions resemble classical paintings and tapestries with macabre themes. Dreyer’s camera prowls through a ruined factory littered with odd, frustratingly irrelevant objects, while Wolfgang Zeller’s insistent music strikes nervous chords. An opening door may reveal the melancholy head of the household, or a weird shriveled man with disturbingly recessed eyes. Story exposition is communicated with silent-style title cards and pages of the father’s book about vampires.
Many of the images are grainy, or leeched of detail. Not all of this is due to less-than-perfect film elements. Rudolph Maté’s camera creeps through white rooms; Dreyer stages a killing under tons of choking white flour. ‘Whiteness’ is Dreyer’s signifier of death, the absence of life-giving blood. This pale visual look was discovered by accident when Dreyer’s first dailies came back fogged, with a haze washing out the image. The director liked the blank, white look of these overexposed scenes, and directed cameraman Maté to carry on with the motif. Heavy (very heavy) filters were used on some exteriors for a deliberate visual effect, perhaps to imitate the look of impressionist paintings. The insubstantiality of the images is the key to the film’s weird, disturbing effect. Roman Polanski was clearly moved by this visual tapping of the Uncanny — it’s the secret of making innocuous events seem horrifying, as in Polanski’s masterful Repulsion.
The film’s centerpiece is a subjective nightmare, an unexplainable out-of-body experience. Careful superimpositions are Dreyer’s main trick to depict a partially transparent Allan, as he explores mysterious rooms. The horror begins with an apparent dream hallucination — a skeletal hand offers him a vial of poison, perhaps a poetic suggestion of suicide. The dream-walking, transparent Allan Grey is in two places at once, being buried alive while separately observing these same burial preparations. He watches himself lying in his coffin, eyes open, as the lid is screwed tight. The ancient vampire woman appears in a window over his face, This Marguerite Chopin does not have the looks of a conventional witch, but instead locates our fear of death in a general unease about the elderly. Allan’s subjective view from inside the coffin shows us ceilings and doorways passing by as he is carried to the grave. The unnerving imagery was repeated but not bettered in films like The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 TV episode with Joseph Cotten, Breakdown.
Although credited to a Sheridan Le Fanu story collection, Vampyr is mostly adapted from one of the stories, Carmilla, the same source used for Roger Vadim’s …Et mourir de plaisir (Blood and Roses) and Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers. There are no direct vampire attacks, no nudity and no overt sexuality. The vision of undead horror is instead communicated through a few unforgettable close-ups. Sybille Schmitz’s Leone is a newly created vampire about to turn predator. She leers upward at her sister, an obscene, hungry look of madness, malice, and fiendish bloodlust. Leone’s unnervingly direct stare is enough to make sensitive people nervous, and Gisèle shrinks in fear. Thus Dreyer taps a horror vein that would not be touched again until the arrival of Hammer’s sexually aware vampire women.
Continuing to go beyond other filmmakers’ definition of horror, Dreyer frames the vampiric possession in religious terms. Leone experiences a genuine rapture. Her ‘salvation’ is a faith experience akin to the frightening resurrection in his deeply affecting Ordet. Dreyer may not have believed in vampires, but he certainly believes in miracles.
Actress Sybille Schmitz was later criticized for weak acting in schmaltzy German melodramas. Here she’s amazingly expressive. We watch her expression fade from peaceful grace to staring death, with her eyes wide open. It’s transcendent, and created simply from the dramatic power of the human face.
Little overt Christian symbolism survives into the final cut, but the ending is a pastoral ‘walk into the light’ that reminds us of the Ave Maria conclusion to Disney’s Fantasia. Dreyer reportedly intended Vampyr to be a sure-fire commercial comeback after the financial disaster of his The Passion of Joan of Arc. It instead brought his filmmaking career to a halt. Some critics of 1932 dismissed the weird story and purposely-vacant hero as the marks of incompetent filmmaking. His next film Day of Wrath was made during WW2.
For horror fans, the surprise of Vampyr is simply beholding such an original cinema-horror creation. Some of the most expressive horror films can be traced back to Dreyer’s oneiric chiller. Allan Gray experiences a surreal demonic playground that looks forward to the haunted realms of semi-abstract gems like John Parker’s poetic Dementia / Daughter of Horror, Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls and Richard Blackburn’s Lemora, A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural. Roman Polanski adapted themes and visuals from Vampyr for his 1967 fairy-tale horror spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers. Polanski’s old professor Abronsius is a dead ringer for Dreyer’s villainous doctor, while the innkeeper Shagal’s stout wife is a good match for the maid in this film. Both films feature artwork that depicts skeletons preying upon the living, and Polanski replays some of the Dreyer’s odd camera tricks. We think we’re watching Allan’s view as he examines some half-finished coffins, but a fast pan reveals the young hero disappearing down a corridor.
Some of the visuals of the J-Horror films — evil children with long hair obscuring their faces — also build on visual obsessions of the kind first seen in Vampyr. The world is unstable and menacing and strange powers are at work just outside our peripheral vision. Before the psychological and visceral revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s, artful horror could be a matter of quiet, disturbing moods. Vampyr shows us the origins of the Uncanny.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Vampyr is an upgrade of its already excellent 2008 DVD. Don’t expect a miraculous new image. The transfer is good but the 1998 restoration could find no original elements and pieced the picture together from surviving German and French materials. The image is always steady but often grainy and slightly scratched. The crude early-talkie audio track is now in listenable condition. Wolfgang Zeller’s scary music is preserved just well enough to give the soundtrack some real power. Viewers that realize what a rescue this is should not be disappointed. Technically speaking, the film restored is the original German version.
The extras are exactly the same as were presented on the DVD. Film scholar Tony Rayns’ detailed commentary attributes the occasional story discontinuities to missing scenes. For ease of viewing, an alternate encoding of the film substitutes English inter-titles and book pages for the German originals. A long-form Danish documentary on Dreyer’s fitful directing career focuses on the reception of his final film, Gertrud. Casper Tyberg narrates a visual essay on Vampyr, comparing Dreyer’s style with themes in classical paintings and using rare photographs to describe missing or lost episodes. Dreyer speaks in English on a 1958 radio show, explaining his theories of filmmaking.
An insert booklet contains essays by Mark Le Fanu and Kim Newman, as well as a 1964 interview with star / producer Julian West (= Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg). Filling out the fat box is a specially published 214-page book containing Dreyer’s film script and the original Le Fanu novella Carmilla. Horror fans that wish to broaden their appreciation of the genre might find great inspiration in this Danish artist’s silent/early talkie classic.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Alternate version with English text for inter-titles; audio commentary with Tony Rayns; Carl Th. Dreyer, a 1966 documentary by Jorgen Roos; video essay by Casper Tybjerg, tracing influences in creating Vampyr; 1958 radio broadcast in which Dreyer reads an essay about filmmaking. An illustrated booklet features essays by Mark Le Fanu and Kim Newman, a piece by Martin Koerber on the restoration, and a 1964 interview with producer and actor Nicolas de Gunzburg. The Blu-ray only also has a book with Dreyer and Christen Jul’s original screenplay, and Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 story Carmilla.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 15, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson