Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Cast: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel
Synopsis: A traveler obsessed with the supernatural visits an old inn and finds evidence of vampires.
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first sound film is an exercise in weirdness that probably loses half its audience in an opening forty-five minutes which serves up a succession of images that appear to make little-to-no sense whatsoever. This might partly be due to the fact that the film is believed to be incomplete, but it’s difficult to shake the impression that Dreyer was attempting to emulate the imagery of dreams (and nightmares) when he shot the movie, which would explain the fragmented nature of its first half. There is a plot of sorts, but it is only reluctantly coaxed from the depths of those vividly unsettling images.
We join Allan Grey (Julian West, aka Baron Nicolas Louis Alexandre de Gunzburg) as he arrives in the village of Courtempierre. Grey books in at a local inn where he first has an unsettling encounter with a disfigured man in the room above, and is then visited by another man (who somehow enters his room with ease even though the door is locked). The man insists that “she must not die” before handing Grey a parcel on which is written the legend “to be opened upon my death” before departing. Those two encounters alone would be enough to have most travellers marching out of the village without looking back, but Grey, a believer in the supernatural, is intrigued enough to take a tour of the village, during which he sees all manner of odd sights. There are strange shadows, for a start, that wander around the ruins of a ruined factory independently of their owner, a soldier with a wooden leg who snoozes on a bench. His curiosity piqued by the sound of dogs and children outside an abandoned industrial building, Grey follows the sounds and comes across a man who claims there are no dogs or children there.
Later, Grey chances upon a chateau in which he finds the man who entered his bedroom the night before. The man has two daughters, one of whom is in the grip of some strange malaise. While they wait for a doctor for her, the old man is shot by the soldier with the restless shadow. As a family servant goes for the police, Grey opens the parcel given to him by the man and finds that it is a book on vampires. As he reads, Grey makes some unsettling associations between the events depicted in the book and those taking place around him…
There’s little doubt that Dreyer was more concerned with creating a disturbing atmosphere than telling a coherent story with Vampyr, and there’s equally no doubt that he succeeds in his aim. There’s a haunting beauty to the images that is at odds with their content, and even now, more than eighty years after the film was made, their power to disturb is quite daunting. The suspicion that Dreyer has perhaps crammed a little too many ideas into the film’s short running time is undeniable, though. For example, there’s a truly chilling sequence late on in the film in which Grey dreams that he sees his own body being prepared for burial, followed by a nightmarish journey as we see the paralysed Grey’s point of view from within the coffin as he’s transported to his grave. It’s a sequence that will stay with anyone who sees it, and yet it has nothing to do with the main thrust of the story other than to cast doubt on its veracity. In fact, the entire movie could be the dream of a man who’s “studies of devil worship and vampire terror of early centuries have made him a dreamer…”
Whatever Dreyer’s intention, with Vampyr, has created a unique horror movie which, although difficult to sit through for the wrong reasons at times, will haunt those who watch it in ways that modern horror movies could never hope to do.
(Reviewed 30th August 2014)