out of ****
Theodor Dreyer had already made one of the greatest of all silent
movies—The Passion of Joan of Arc—by the
time he directed Vampyr in 1932, a film in which he outdoes
himself with haunted images of the macabre. Like his previous
masterpiece of silent cinema, Dreyer’s take on the vampire
legend is moody, surreal, and almost completely silent. It also
contains some of the most poetic, evocative images ever captured
is in those images that Vampyr really comes to life.
Dreyer, understanding that horror has more to do with mood than
with story, puts the plot second to the powerful, dream-like atmosphere.
In doing so, he creates the most visually appealing vampire film
ever made (with F.W. Muranu’s 1922 superior Nosferatu
coming in at close second; Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu
and George A. Romero's 1977 Martin tied for third).
story concerns an occultist/vampire expert Allan Gray (Julia West,
who bears an uncanny resemblance to Zeppo Marx) and his journey
to a small village and his bizarre encounters with the supernatural,
including two sisters and their attacks from a bloodthirsty (is
there any other kind?) vampire. As Gray experiences supernatural
events one after another, including living skulls and dancing
shadows, he eventually realizes that it’s up to him to save
the two women from the vampire’s curse.
I have already indicated, Vampyr is not a film to be
judged on the merits of its plot. In fact, throughout most of
the film, I really wasn’t sure what was going on, or why.
Characters come and go without any motive or explanation, and
everyone plays one-dimensional parts with such monotone, dream-like
stiffness so that it is impossible to tell who is good or evil.
fact, Vampyr is best viewed as Dreyer’s nightmare,
with Gray as our quiet tour guide. Consider the opening moments,
in which Gray observes the nightmarish shadows, dancing quietly
in an empty room. Their dance is slow and methodic, and it casts
a haze of evil over the entire picture. It is later revealed that
we have been watching the shadows of murderers, who aid the vampires
in evil deeds. By the time we know this, we’ve already guessed
as much simply because of the sinister dread that Dreyer has created
through their demonic dance.
entire movie is loaded with images like this, and Dreyer creates
them with only one motivation in mind: They are meant to stimulate
our imagination, darken our mood, and stir thoughts of horror
within us. Other notable images include Gray’s vision of
Death as an ominous skeleton holding a bottle of poison, as well
as the final, tragic confrontation with the vampire, and Gray’s
out of body experience. All of these scenes included some groundbreaking
special effects for their era, but don’t let that “for
their era” phrase fool you—they still pack a horrific
best approach, I think, is his choice to play Vampyr
as mainly a silent movie. There are subtitles when the few lines
of dialogue are spoken, but they are hardly needed. The words
are spoken in quiet, muffled tones that add to the surreal qualities,
and the facial expressions and terrifying images are enough to
convey the film’s stunning effect. In fact, I would go so
far as to say that Vampyr is one of the greatest silent
horror films ever made.
all honesty, I found myself so mesmerized by the power of the
visuals that I didn’t care that I the story and characters
did nothing for me. So what if the plot doesn’t make any
sense, or if it doesn’t even try to? Here is a film that
lives exists entirely on a dreamlike plain, creating horrific
and haunting images using simple methods that still conjure up
chills today. It is the closest film I’ve seen to replicating
the surrealistic, mind-bending alternate realities that we find
in our own dreams.
Julian West: Allan Gray
Rena Mandel: Gisele
Sybille Schmitz: Leone
Maurice Schutz: Lord of the Manor
Jan Hieronimko: Doctor
A Tobis Filmkunst production.
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Written by Christen Jul and Meyer,
from the book In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu. No M.P.A.A.
rating, but contains images of surrealistic horror; no sex or
violence. Running time: 75 minutes. Original year of release:
1932. German with English subtitles.