Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) works like a fever dream that mixes fragmented moments of surrealism and German expressionism to create a unique vampire tale. The story concerns a young traveler who investigates a remote castle, where the lord of the manor and his two daughters have been plagued by a vampire. The film opens with the following introduction message: “This is a tale of the strange adventures of young Allan Gray who immersed himself in the study of devil worship and vampires. Preoccupied with superstitions of centuries past he became a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred.” As Allan Gray walks through the uncanny surroundings, he follows eerie mumbling voices and elongated shadows, which seem to belong to evil apparitions. The surrounding and shifting phantasmagoria has a haunting effect on the viewer, adding to a sense of uneasiness. Though released one year after Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), Vampyr is different from its predecessor and is more connected to the earlier silent horror films that emerged from Germany in the 1920s. The gothic spirit of Vampyr is closer to the vampire tale of Nosferatu (1922), while its dreamlike elements recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (without its abstract set designs).
Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer had previously helmed the fatally foreboding The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which delved into the persecution of an individual by a superstitious and religious society. In Dreyer’s follow-up film Vampyr, the inhabited village is made up of haunted superstitious townspeople, who seem trapped in a trance or ghost-like state. Dreyer is cinematically interested in the disconnection of the individual from that of his surroundings, or that of dream and reality. When lead protagonist Allan Gray sleeps, he is awoken in the middle of the night by an old man who unlocks his door and cryptically proclaims that “she mustn’t die” and leaves a note on a package that should be opened upon his death. Important information appears in his sleep state, while the waking day appears to look like a dream.
Dreyer creates an unclear world of logic with constant camera probing and unsettled movements. The inhabitants are made up of the elderly who are unable to protect their young. As Allan Gray investigates the castle, he witnesses a crippled one-legged guardsman, and the dream-like shadows of days past when the townspeople laughed and danced joyously, only to be silenced by an elderly witch lady with a cane. The Lord of the Manor’s daughter, Gisèle, looks after her sister Léone, who is ill and is slowly turning into a vampire. Allan only seems to witness things in fractions, and when the Lord is murdered, Allan can only see a shadowy figure with a rifle. Unable to discern the voices and noises that he hears, he is in a constant state of incomprehensibility. After the Lord of the Manor is murdered, Allan opens the package, which turns out to be a book about vampires. In one of Dreyer’s more effective and atmospheric moments in the film, Léone is discovered lying unconscious (with a neck bite by Allan and Gisèle) outdoors, where the landscape is shot in a hazy dream-like quality. Other surreal moments include Allan’s outer-body dream of his own death and funeral, which gives the film a poetic Poe quality. The film in some ways can be seen as a forerunner to some of the Avant-Garde films that were released during this time, such as the dream-like short of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).
Dreyer seems more concerned with atmosphere than logic. The haunting film seems to be about the religious conflicts between the town and the Satanic old lady with a cane. The village doctor appears to be a servant of evil and is murdered in a flour-mill (though by whom is unclear). Yet, the scene of the doctor suffocating under the weight of the flour that pours down upon him, juxtaposed with Allan and Gisèle searching through the fog on a boat, is chilling and hypnotic. Though slower paced than Dracula, Frankentstein (1931), The Wolf Man (1941) and all the other Universal horror films at the time, Vampyr gets under one’s skin and into the subconscious more effectively. Unlike the typical vampire film that includes bats, fangs, coffins, crosses and holy-water, Dreyer’s film creates a foreboding mood of paranoia, dread, and sadness. Interestingly, the character Allan Gray is never shown to exist in a world outside the confines of the village and castle. The viewer never sees Allan interact in normal surroundings; he just appears on the landscape like the beginning of a dream. This dreamscape quality stays with the film until the very end, where Allan and Gisèle reach a heavenly spot in a forest, the final fantasy state.
Though filmmaker Dreyer is Danish, Vampyr draws its inspiration from various European sources. A German production, Vampyr was shot in Abbaye de Braye, France (near Paris). Vampyr is loosely based on In A Glass Darkly by Irish, gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who also penned the female vampire novella Carmilla. The film was cheaply financed by Dutch Baron Nicholas De Gunzberg who also happened to be an amateur actor and used the film as a vehicle to jumpstart an acting career. The Baron westernized his name to Julian West and played the leading role of Allan Gray. A considerable amount of credit should be given to Polish cinematographer Rudolph Maté for the expressionistic look of the film. Rudolph Maté previously worked with Dreyer on The Passion of Joan of Arc, and his camera work lent itself well with film noir masterpieces like Foreign Correspondent (1940), Gilda (1946), and The Lady From Shanghai (1947). Maté eventually turned his hand at directing and delivered two film noir gems himself with The Dark Past (1948) and D.O.A. (1950). According to Bergman and Karney, Maté was instructed by Dreyer to create the eerie mood of Vampyr by “reflecting light off gauze.” (Faber 675)
Due to its experimental nature, Vampyr was a financial disaster when released. According to Thompson and Bordwell, “Vampyr was so different from other films of the period that it was greeted with incomprehension. It marked the end of Dreyer’s international wanderings. He returned to Denmark and, unable to find backing for another project, to life as a journalist.” (Film History, pg. 158) Dreyer did eventually make his way back into making films, but it would be in ten years.
Vampyr may have been different from films of that time, but many years later it can be seen as an undeniable influence on future European filmmakers dealing with the vampire genre. French filmmaker Jean Rollin owes a cinematic debt to Dreyer’s vision, as does Spanish cult icon Jesus Franco. Rollin’s minimal setting and atmospheric approach to the vampire genre is much closer to Dreyer’s than Browning’s Dracula. Also, Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) disposes of genre expectations in the same way as Dreyer, creating a similar pace in terms of narrative development. Often a form of hypnosis is integrated into the vampire genre, with Dracula usually using this on his intended victim. Dreyer uses different techniques as cinematic hypnosis on the viewer, as a means to inhabit this psychological space. The cinematic approach is similar in style to director Jacques Tourneur and his films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943) or Curse of the Demon (1957). Unlike most vampire films, Vampyr works on a cerebral level that begs for a patient and closer examination.
Not only is Vampyr one of the most original adaptations of the vampire genre, its artistically challenging and moody. Though not successful at the time it has developed a strong and influential reputation, enough so to warrant a Criterion Collection release. Not concerned with typical genre specifics, the film realizes the artistic and atmospheric possibilities of a horror film.