One of the most beautiful examples of early horror cinema, Vampyr confounded critics upon its release, who were expecting great things from director Carl Theodor Dreyer, after the success of his seminal work, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. It has since found its place as a genre masterpiece, and one that was years ahead of its time.
Vampyr occupies a strange place in cinema history – there’s an obvious influence of German Expressionism through the use of shadows and silhouettes, but it feels altogether more modern and less artificial. Released the year after Tod Browning’s Dracula, Dreyer’s film has a much less traditional plot; the supernatural elements are more ethereal than conventionally scary, but it’s the unsettling way the story is told that sends a chill up the spine.
Student of the occult Allan Gray (Nicolas De Gunzburg) is passing through a small European village and stays overnight in an inn, where strange things begin to happen. Soon he discovers that the town is under the malign influence of a vampire (Henriette Gerard) and her two acolytes, a sinister doctor (Recalling the mad scientists of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis) and his peg legged henchman – whose rogue shadow feels like an influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The mythos here has very little in common with traditional vampire lore, aside from the stake through the heart. The villain has none of the recognisable vampire traits, and yet she’s truly menacing in her few appearances. Similarly, the girl who falls under the vampire’s spell never grows fangs, but her predatory, vulpine look is disconcerting without ever drifting into high camp.
Dreyer’s first sound film, Vampyr still feels like it belongs in the silent era, just with some incidental sound – there are even title cards at some points. What’s most striking about the film though, is Dreyer’s very modern sensibility. The way he moves the camera fluidly around the locations, is incredible for the time, and he uses an impressive depth of field.
Cinematographer Rudolf Mate makes breathtaking use of lighting, especially in the closing scenes where the characters are bathed in white light. There is also a lot of disturbing imagery, including a haunting dream sequence involving a premature burial, and the enduring image of the scythe-wielding ferryman, an ominous harbinger of things to come.
The cast is largely made up of non-professional actors – including De Gunzburg who seems to have got the role after agreeing to finance the film! He’s not terrible, bearing an uncanny, and apt resemblance to HP Lovecraft, but doesn’t make a lasting impression. The lack of a real physical threat also means that while the filmmaking is impressive, it doesn’t have the memorable monsters of the Universal films or FW Murnau’s Nosferatu. Instead what stays with you is the feeling it inspires, one of intense unease.
Vampyr‘s influence on horror cinema cannot be overstated, but it’s an insidious kind of influence. It’s fingerprints can be felt on Eraserhead, Repulsion , even Peter Weir’s Witness in one particularly nasty death scene. More recently, Robert Eggers‘ The Lighthouse has a visual style that owes a huge debt to Dreyer. The film itself is an effective, disquieting work of danse macabre, and this new 2k restoration is just beautiful – it took 10 years to restore but the effect is spellbinding, with the vivid yet intangible feeling of a waking nightmare.
The two commentaries from Guillermo Del Toro and Tony Rayns are both enjoyable for very different reasons. Rayns is a font of knowledge and his commentary is incredibly informative, while Del Toro acknowledges that he is there in his capacity as a fan, but is no less engaging for that! This release also includes a Visual essay by scholar Casper Tybjerg, an interview with Kim Newman, Two new interviews with historian David Huckvale; Carl Th. Dreyer (1966) – a documentary by Jörgen Roos; Two deleted scenes; The Baron – a short documentary about Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, and much more!