They say never judge a [DVD] by its cover. Well, with Criterion’s recent release of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s (Passion of Joan of Arc) Vampyr (IMDb), I just couldn’t help myself. As a big fan of Murnau’s Nosferatu, just looking at images from Dreyer’s film, I couldn’t help but be captivated and intrigued. Criterion seemed to realize it is the perfect film for this Halloween season if you’re in the mood for a classic and tired of the same old same old.
Vampyr is the simple story of a young man, Allan Gray, who takes refuge in a country-side inn during an aimless journey. As a study of the death and occult, Allan is a bit of a dreamer, maybe even overly paranoid about spooks and the like and possibly sees things that aren’t really there… or are they?
From nearly the opening moment of the film we have several ominous and ambiguous creepy shots that really play well with lighting and angles. As Allan walks around the interior of the inn, he follows a man’s shadow throughout the house that seems to have no source and which leads him to attic area in which an entire parade of human-like shadows are dancing and singing. While in the middle of the room lies an open coffin that has obviously been lied in recently. Later that night, Allan is suddenly awoken when a strange old man enters his room without a word and drops off a mysterious letter that is only to be opened in the event of his death. All of these little set-ups lead to Allan’s fear and interest in the possibility of a haunting of some kind or a vampire “infestation.”
As we do come to find, there is indeed a vampire lurking around the grounds and maybe even more than one! This is revealed when Allan stumbles across an attack in progress. But the attacker seems to be a little old lady who can barely hobble around using a cane. With his knowlege of vampires and some literature on the subject, Allan leads a campaign to spearhead the vampire epidemic and save the attacked victim.
As one of the first horror films of the “talkie” age, Dreyer relied much more heavily on the visual side of film making; and it is displayed here wonderfully. I couldn’t help but think that if Tony Scott had been directing films in the early thirties, this might be what it would look like. The editing is quickly paced and could be described as frantic for the time period – almost to the point of distraction. There are crazy cut away shots to nothing of relevance all the time and lots of facial closeups.
What works best however is the mood set by the camera movement. The camera moves effortlessly throughout the inn and its exterior to give the feeling of actually being there. There are lots of tracking shots, zooming in and out and one scene in which the camera retreats through several rooms as the characters walk towards the viewer. Along with unique angles and blocking of actors, almost every shot is artfully done and wonderful to take in; particularly of a sequence as seen from inside of a coffin! While there are only a few special effects shots, even by 30’s standards might be a bit lackluster. But even the text cards which are given to provide some exposition have eerie background imagery that directly correlates with the upcoming act.
The acting is very typical of the time period and a little bit “stagey”. However, the specific and unique look of each of the actors, obviously brought on board for their distinctiveness, brings about a certain eerie charm from all of them.
And while very little is seen of the actual vampire, there are a couple of hauntingly good death sequences, one of which I was actually really surprised to see take place as it is a unique death (worthy even for one of the Final Destination movies) and fairly graphic. Apparently the German censors of the time removed some other gruseome shots that were unfortunately not restored back into this remastered version of the movie – though some of them were and some of them are available in the special features.
For this Halloween season, if you’re looking for something a bit different, yet still interesting and atmospheric and want something that is truly “old-school” film making, Vampyr will certainly be a welcome intrusion into your home.