Friday, October 3, 2008

#79: Vampyr


Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Written by Christen Jul and Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the novel In a Glass Darkly by J. Sheridan Le Fanu)
Released May 6, 1932

All of the atmosphere and mood that I had read was supposed to be in spades in Don't Look Now can actually be found in this creepy black and white near-silent picture from 1932.

There's no question that Vampyr, with its incredible use of shadows and moving/panning camera techniques, had an incredibly influential impact on the way horror films have been made since its release. If someone told you that this was actually a long lost David Lynch movie, I could see where you might believe them.

The story of Vampyr is relatively simple: a young traveler named Allan Grey (played with Keanu Reeves-esque numbness by financial backer and producer Julian West) lodges in a Gothic mansion and is soon intrigued by the strange sounds and visions he sees. One night, the keeper of the lodge enters his room, mysteriously declaring "She must not die!" and leaving behind a small package on which he writes, "To be opened after my death."

Grey begins following a series of strange visions: shadows of people that move and act independently of their "owners." Grey witnesses the murder of the old man and discovers the package to be a book about vampires.

Here, the film basically takes off into an extended collection of dreamlike (or nightmarish) images that are just as - if not more than - important to the effect of the movie than the story being told. For a movie this old to have so many unforgettable images is nothing short of impressive. There's a particular extended sequence of a major character's entombment and burial that will stay with me for weeks.

It's a damn shame, then, that Vampyr was a critical failure that resulted in director Carl Theodor Dreyer not being able to make another film for a decade. His work here is easily as groundbreaking and influential as a movie like Citizen Kane would come to be.

If you do wind up renting Vampyr, try not to be too alarmed by the look of the film. In addition to the obvious unavoidable aging that happens with a movie over 75 years old, Dreyer intentionally used a washed-out look to add to the surreal, dreamlike mood. Since the film was originally conceived as a silent movie, there is very little dialogue, and what does exist is muffled and faint, which strangely adds to the proceedings.

As for the scratchiness of many of the scenes, I didn't get the Criterion version of the DVD from Netflix, so I'm unsure of how much they cleaned up in their release. If this kind of stuff is distracting to you, you're not going to enjoy the time spent watching Vampyr. For me, it worked in the same way that the hissing and crackling of old vinyl records sometimes - hell, most of the time - make the music sound that much better, that much more lived-in and real.

For more on Vampyr:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the Criterion DVD. Let me know how it looks.

An excerpt, the first 4 minutes, from Vampyr:

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