Criterion Project #34: VAMPYR (1932)

Author’s note: I was out of town for the majority of this week so please forgive the brevity and lack of panache of this post. I’ll possibly addend this entry at a later date to include some more in-depth analysis.


Spine #437

Year: 1932

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

It seems fitting that I would transition from Orson Welles’ F for Fake, a film about illusion and trickery, into Carl Theodor Dreyer’s phantasmic vampire film, Vampyr. In the former film, Welles explores the essence of the creator as an artistic illusionist, while in the latter Dreyer creates a filmic experience through the use of revolutionary camera and editing tricks in order to establish an eerie, frightening atmosphere that still retains its power 90 years later.

The plot is simple: a man, Allen Grey (Nicolas de Glunzburg), obsessed with studying demons and the occult happens upon a small hamlet besieged by the curse of a vampire. A myriad of ghastly occurrences take place that build a mystery about the cause of evil amongst the unassuming villagers. The simplicity of the story is supplementary to the suffocating sense of dread that seeps from every frame, augmented by reverse photography, expressionistic lighting, shadow play, and creepy overlays that make the world feel strangely tangible.

Dreyer uses these tools to create a surreal environment where two worlds meet – the world of the living, and the world of the dead. The moment Allen Grey descends upon the seemingly quiet estate, he experiences a multitude of strange occurrences. It begins in Allan’s bedroom with the horrific proclamation from one of the townsfolk that his daughter must not die. He proceeds to leave a memento for Allen with the edict that it must not be opened until he has passed away.

This understandably haunts Allen and he goes about deciphering the frightful pronouncement. During his investigation he walks along a river and sees the reflection of a girl in the glassy surface of the water, yet there is no physical presence causing the reflection. He also sees the macabre shadow of a man digging a grave, but the inverse is happening. Here Dreyer utilizes reverse photography to make it appear as though the gravedigger is filling the grave in. Both of these are eerie premonitions of the grim curse shrouding the village. There’s also a moment when Allen is exploring his surroundings and comes across a ladder with, once again, a shadow that belongs to no living being. It gives the impression of impending horror, like glimpses of nightmares to come or events that have already occurred but remain stuck between two planes of existence.

I remember watching Vampyr years ago and falling in-love with the stylistic flourishes, such as the aforementioned tricks and Dreyer’s gliding camera work. But what I didn’t remember was the grounding of the story in religion. In the film, the curse of vampirism is often referenced as a link to souls that died in impenitent sin or as remorseless criminals, and I found that to be slightly unusual for a vampire tale.

Don’t get me wrong, there are obvious references to vampirism being the opposite of religion. A common accoutrement of lore is the vampire’s aversion to crosses and holy water, so the precedent is embedded in the text. But Dreyer’s version links the evilness of the living soul with that of the undead being they become. The vampire at the center of the narrative is Marguerite Chopin, who is said to have “died an unrepentant soul. And the Church denied her the last sacraments”. Which is to say, she wished not to be forgiven and was not absolved of her earthly sins prior to death. It feels like an interesting twist that hints at the seeds of vampirism being sewn by the living soul and its predilection toward evil and a closeness with the devil as opposed to God.

Maybe I’m wrong in thinking many of the most well-known tales of vampirism intimate the struggle of a tortured soul of a good person who has been turned something evil which they can’t control. Dreyer might have us believe vampires were born to be an undead curse once their earthly presence is vanquished. Who’s to say?

I think the film is a marvel of cinematic technique. The fact that it still manages to feel creepy and otherworldly 90 years after its initial release is absolutely astonishing. Is it light on plot? Absolutely. But the film isn’t about plot, it’s about creating a mood that permeates your mind and covers it in a blanket of dread. The moment when Leonรฉ looks at her sister with blood-thirsty, sinister intent is genuinely terrifying. In an instant, she flips from helpless victim to murderous evil and it’s absolutely bone-chilling. And the fate of the vampire’s minion…in a word, terrifying. I honestly don’t make statements like that lightly, so it’s safe to say I found it to be incredibly affecting.

In a day and age where anything and everything is possible with the use of CGI and incredibly intuitive computer software, Vampyr is a testament to the ingenuity of cinematic genius. You’re simply not prepared for how skin-crawling a 90-year-old movie can be. Give it a watch, you won’t regret it.

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