Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Julian West,
Maurice Schulz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Henriette Gerard,
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Audio: Dolby Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.19:1
Features: See Review
Length: 73 Minutes
Release Date: October 3, 2017
“She must not die!”
Every so often, as a critic, one has to ask himself some rather bizarre questions. One such question is: is it possible to recommend a movie even if you don’t really know for sure what the heck is going on in it?
In the case of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, I will say the answer is a qualified ‘yes’. I’ve seen the picture a small number of times over the years. I’ve never fully understood it. I thought the Criterion release, with its commentary, essays and extra features, would shed some extra light on the film. But some waters are just a little too murky to penetrate.
It was Dreyer’s foray into surrealism and horror, and made several years after his incredible achievement with The Passion of Joan of Arc. But while there was nothing in his earlier film that really puzzled or alienated, with Vampyr, he crafted a picture that’s frequently hard to follow, and from my own experience, it doesn’t seem that subsequent viewings really answer the riddles completely.
It involves a young man named Allan Gray (West, the pseudonym for the film’s financier Nicolas de Gunzburg), whom we are told is obsessed with otherworldly notions. So the movie begins with a question: are we seeing true events unfold, or just the product of an imbalanced mind?
He arrives in a village to find strange occurrences. Grave diggers seem to be digging in reverse. An old man wanders into his room with the cryptic warning quoted above, and leaves him a package to be opened in the event of his death.
There is a sick woman Leone (Schmitz) and her dutiful family. She seems to have suffered a vampire’s bite; more or less confirmed when Gray opens the package and finds a book about vampires. The pages from the book provide a great deal of exposition for us. The suspect is an old woman named Marguerite (Gerard) and her doctor companion (Hieronimko).
Is the doctor a vampire himself? Well, we don’t see him engaging in the behavior, but he does seem to have a coffin in his room. As Leone worsens and appears to be close to either death or craving blood herself, Gray has a vision of his own death and burial, which we see from the point of view of his body in the coffin. Is it his real self or his dream self that comes alive and to the rescue at the end?
Maybe all the answers are really there, and I’m just thick. But Vampyr has always been a movie of more questions than answers to me. Everything about the picture is a curiosity, starting with the fact that it’s a sound film with very little dialogue, and played out with lots of interstitial titles as a silent film would.
One senses a bit of expressionism in Dreyer’s style, but not quite as harsh as earlier German horror films (Nosferatu comes to mind). The tone of the picture reminded me more of films like L’age D’Or from Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali…there’s a dreamlike quality to the images that doesn’t scare so much as induce chills.
Even at a mere 73 minutes, the movie proceeds at an unbelievably slow pace…the only excitement occurs near the end, when a character ends up buried in flour at a mill. And by the way…who or what exactly activated the machinery in the mill?
See what I mean? If there’s a modern audience for Vampyr, it will be cinema students who appreciate a sense of style and visual imagery. Those who like a little more direct narrative are likely to be put off. I tend to consider myself the former, so I’ve managed to return to the film a few times over the years, each time with a fresh perspective and higher expectations.
But I may have to give up…Dreyer hasn’t answered my questions, and I don’t think future viewings will give me anything more of what I hope to find. Maybe that’s the way it should be.
Criterion has done better than expected for a 1932 film. There are issues, but nothing more or less than what you’d expect. The print suffers from the wear and tear of age, but this is the best presentation of Dreyer’s movie that I’ve seen, and I don’t think we can ask for much more.
The mono sound has its share of clicks and pops, but the subtitles make sure you don’t miss anything. Not a lot of dynamic range is present or required…again, good for its age, but nothing more.
This disc contains a solid commentary track from scholar Tony Rayns, as well as a nicely-done English text version, where pains were taken to keep the look of the titles while giving us a straight English look at them.
There is also a terrific documentary on Dreyer and a visual essay on the influences of the film. Rounding out is a thick booklet with new essays, interviews, and a look at the original screenplay as well as the short story that partly inspired the film.
In its day, Vampyr probably suffered in comparison with other vampire movies like Nosferatu and Dracula. For modern audiences, it exists mainly as a curious oddity and an example of creating anti-horror with pure visual style and atmosphere. I’m glad Criterion has released this under-seen classic from Carl Theodor Dreyer on Blu-ray, but I doubt any presentation of the movie will ever give me all the tools I need to answer all of my questions.