Today’s cinema adventure: Vampyr, a 1932 French/German horror film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, about a young man, obsessed with the occult, whose wanderings lead him into the dark troubles of a remote countryside manor, where the owner’s mysteriously ill daughter may be in the grip of horrifying powers from beyond the grave. Dreyer’s first film using sound, it was also his first effort following The Passion of Joan of Arc, a feature which, despite enthusiastic acclaim from critics, had been a box office disaster. With no studio willing to take a chance on the basis of his artistic promise alone, Dreyer found private financing from Nicolas de Brunholz, a young Baron who was a fixture of the Parisian social scene, known for his extravagant parties and his patronage of the arts, who would later become a prominent fashion editor for such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue (and a mentor for designers Bill Blass and Calvin Klein, among others). De Brunholz’s condition for backing Dreyer’s film was that he would be its star; under the pseudonym of “Julian West,” assumed to assuage his prominent family’s disapproval of his acting ambitions, he portrays the wispy focal character of Allan Grey, and though his acting abilities were decidedly limited (and wisely un-stretched by Dreyer’s demands), his tall, slender frame and his handsome, elegant appearance set a distinctive tone at the center of the movie, aptly suggesting a strong spirit that has perhaps found himself over his head in a situation beyond his grasp.
Nevertheless, despite the support and participation of one of Europe’s most prominent society figures and the attendant buzz which surrounded it, Vampyr proved to be a worse flop than Joan of Arc, booed at its debut screening and, this time, even derided by the critics, who found it slow-moving, incoherent, and/or laughable; for many years it was widely considered Dreyer’s worst film, falling into such neglect that all but a few damaged original prints were lost. Indeed, produced to capitalize on the popularity of such American horror films as Dracula and Frankenstein (though it was initially conceived before these films had been released), it had such a marked difference in tone and style that it is easy to see why it perplexed and disappointed movie-goers of the time. The film’s failure contributed to Dreyer’s declining financial and emotional stability, which led to a nervous breakdown and kept him from making another film for another 11 years. It was only after his subsequent career and the retrospective appreciation of a later generation that reassessment granted it a status more deserved by its innovative and unique contribution to the horror genre and to cinema in general.
Ironically, many of the elements which made Vampyr such a flop are the reasons it is considered such so significant today. On a superficial level, it is one of the first horror films to feature a female vampire (and an elderly one at that) as its main antagonist, having been partly based on the short story Carmilla, by L. Sheridan La Fanu, a popular 19th-century fiction known for its decidedly lesbian overtones- some of which carry over into the film. It was also one of the first times the obvious sexual implications of the vampire myth were explored more overtly; though there is no explicit reference or depiction of sex, the metaphoric connection is clear, particularly in the decidedly romantic manner in which the young heroine is seen being victimized by her attacker. The film is also notable for its re-imagination of the standard, Dracula-based formula seen in most vampire movies; although it features most of the key archetypes inherent to the story, many of the familiar stock characters are absent or significantly changed, and the locations, though suitably grim and antiquated, are not the gothic staples of our expectation- the village is an idyllic, sun-scaped riverside town, devoid of torch-waving mobs, and in place of a foreboding castle for the vampire’s lair, we are given a decrepit flour mill.
More important, however, is Vampyr‘s visual and thematic style, and the underpinnings of its influences from dominant artistic movements of the time. Dreyer’s artistic sensibilities, while distinctly his own, were clearly influenced by his involvement with the French art scene, resulting here in a movie reminiscent of works by his more directly avant-garde contemporaries such as Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau. His stated intention with Vampyr was to take the art of cinema in a new direction, using a vehicle which lent itself to imaginative treatment by nature of its supernatural content; in realizing this goal, he blended his own passion for realism (enhanced by his use of natural lighting and authentic location photography) with the heightened theatricality and Freudian overtones of Expressionism, the seemingly nonsensical and dreamlike imagery of Surrealism, and the piecemeal construction of Impressionism. The resultant film glows with an ethereal beauty, combining a variety of cinematographic techniques (exquisitely executed by Rudolph Maté) that range from the sharply defined to the gauzy and murky; the narrative is deliberately cloudy and illogical, filled with non-sequiturs and credibility gaps, creating the feeling of a dream or even a delusion, an effect bolstered by camera trickery that gives us such jarring elements as shadows moving independently (or in compete absence) of their owners, and otherwise commonplace actions occurring in reverse; deeply symbolic or arcane iconography is everywhere, and the screen is filled with a rich and varied texture of design- mostly the result of decor and objects inherent to the actual shooting locations; and finally, the overall effect of Vampyr is created by a cumulative process in which the broad and vivid strokes of its seemingly disjointed progression combine to form a complete picture that is unified and harmonious- if somewhat unsettling.
Adding to the hallucinatory feel of Vampyr is its primitive use of sound. The European film community was behind the curve with the new technology of talking pictures, and the location shooting of Dreyer’s movie only exacerbated the difficulties, as did his plan to shoot the film in three separate languages- French, German, and English, though the existing print was restored from surviving copies of the former two versions and there is no evidence that the latter was ever completed. The problems were surmounted by a screenplay (co-written with Dreyer by Christen Jul) containing a minimum of dialogue, mostly cryptic exchanges that were overdubbed in a studio after the fact by actors other than the ones onscreen; however, the inclusion of aural elements was an integral part of Dreyer’s technique here, and he utilizes a wide variety of eerie effects, not only to underscore the action (along with an elaborate and effective score by Wolfgang Zeller- a pioneering inclusion for early sound films, which were mostly devoid of musical accompaniment), but also to aid in telling the story, with several key scenes relying heavily on soundscapes to convey important events that are taking place off-camera.
However, even with full appreciation for the skill and artistry with which it was made, watching Vampyr is hardly a thrilling experience; with its emphasis on atmosphere and its artistic conceits, it fails to concern itself with such usual priorities as pacing or continuity, and in spite of the macabre crisis it depicts it is largely lacking in suspense or action, contenting itself instead to create a series of elegiac encapsulations of mood and concept. As it approaches its ending, however, Vampyr suddenly shifts gear and delivers a pair of sequences that transform it from an intellectual exercise into a genuine horror movie. First is an extended set piece in which its protagonist has a premonition of himself lying wide-eyed in a windowed coffin, being prepared for and carried off to burial. Through the use of first-person perspective, Dreyer creates a highly uncomfortable, claustrophobic identification of the audience with the corpse, forcing us to imagine our own death and experience the ominous finality of these moments, as well as conjuring the universal fear of being buried alive. Continuing to capitalize on the latter, we are shortly afterward given a scene in which one of the characters, trapped at the bottom of a storage shaft and surrounded by the cold sterility and inhumanity of ominous industrial machinery, is slowly submerged in a cascade of sifted flour until his desperate cries for help are silenced by death. These sections of the film distill its underlying theme into a direct and palpable form; for Vampyr, at its core, is ultimately a meditation on the inescapable reality of death, the fear of which, as Dreyer rightly understood, is at the base of all our obsessive fascination with the dark mythology of our folklore and fiction. When we cringe at the imagined threat of the undead monsters or unspeakable diseases that haunt our shared nightmares, we are really responding to the shadow of our own mortality; and though an iron spike through the heart may end the vampire’s reign of terror, and an emergence from fog into a sunlit clearing may temporarily provide the comfortable reassurance that all will now be well, we know that staving off these supernatural horrors can only delay the inevitable fate which awaits us all. The power of Vampyr derives from its recognition of that fact; and though much of the film expresses the concept of death through motifs and moods that impress us without involving or exciting us, it blindsides us in its penultimate scenes with these visceral evocations of our most primal fear, rendering hollow its obligatory happy ending and leaving us with an indelible sense of the bleak hopelessness summed up in the familiar words inscribed on the lid of our hero’s hallucinatory coffin: “From dust are you made and to dust you shall return.” It’s an uncomfortable reminder, and one which Vampyr provides more vividly than the vast majority of gruesome splatter-fests that represent the horror film genre of today.