Directed by Carl Thedor Dreyer
“This is the 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. His aimless wanderings led him late one evening to a secluded inn by the river in a village called Courtempierre”.
So begins Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, a film possessing much mystery and intrigue. For Dreyer, it was his first sound film, but it still harbours a silent aesthetic, only enhanced further by ingenious use of noises and sparse dialogue. In fact, this is a film that seems wholly concerned with its images above all else. The narrative is subdued and somewhat convoluted, and mostly held together by several instances of text on screen (such as the quote above). Later in the film a book on vampire lore, which we are shown several passages of, replaces this text. Of course this doesn’t help tell the story within the film. But does give us significant information that relates to the goings on of Vampyr.
The opening text, which explains the odd preoccupations our protagonist has with the abnormal and supernatural, is of high importance. As strange events occur, we are challenged by the idea that perhaps Allan Gray is imagining things. The first hint of this divide between perception and reality occurs early on, when Gray reaches the inn. As he approaches the establishment, he sees a man, with his back turned, holding a scythe, preparing to sail away from the shore. Once Gray has settled in his room, he looks out the window to see this very same man, now immobile, and positioned in a manner where Gray and the viewer can now make out his face. Logic would suggest that the man would already be off in the distance; however, Vampyr is a film that will challenge such notions.
As Allan Gray ventures through the inn and the surrounding area, we become aware of the very odd layout of the building. Logically, things don’t seem to quite add up, and one wonders whether or not simply going from point A to B in the inn would actually be possible. The environment is a large contributor the off-kilter mood of the film. The unorthodox editing that Dreyer employs creates an unsettling dislocation of space.
Gray’s perception of what is around him seems unreal, and we begin to question the consciousness of the film. Is what we are being shown subjective or objective? This is one of the dominant themes of the film. Gray seems to be a man who invites the fantastic, so when we watch him witness the death of Derr Scholssherr, the Lord of the manor, we don’t necessarily trust his interpretation of the event. From Gray’s viewpoint it appears as if a shadow was wielding a firearm and killed the man. Perhaps what happened in actuality was a natural death; considering that the way the man dies looks similar to how someone would react to a heart attack. It is difficult to surmise what is truly happening in Vampyr, as the supernatural and the natural are indeed difficult to separate. One point that suggests what we are seeing is objective would be that Allan Gray is commonly seen within the frame. We are not simply seeing things from his point of view, but seeing him see. Also, in one scene we observe Marguerite Chopin, the film’s vampire villainess, and her pawn, the village doctor without Allan Gray being present.
Within Vampyr are several glimpses into some sort of shadow world. Often we are shown images of shadows of people moving about the walls and corridors. This creative invention of the visuals is the film’s strongest quality. One of the most striking images of the film, which is recycled throughout, is the shadow of a grave digger which is played in reverse so as to look like he is un-digging a grave. In one of the most memorable scenes, Allan Gray watches as a peg-legged shadow moves around independently, and eventually rejoins the physical body to which it is, at least spiritually, bound. The actual peg-legged man is sitting on a bench, and the shadow adjusts and forms to match his position. It seems that some sort of out-of-body experience is possible.
Dreyer seems to be interested in working within a genre and rejecting all of its clichés. Ultimately, Vampyr is the antithesis of the common horror film, and focuses neither on melodrama nor violence, but on creating a disquieting mood through unusual camera movement and innovative lighting effects. Also we are not treated to typical scenes one would expect as automatic. For example, early on in the film when Allan Gray first arrives at the inn, there is no scene in which he acquires his room. We skip that part over, and immediately see Gray in his room as observes the man with the scythe. The usual scenes required of a narrative are not present. This is effective as it makes the qualities of the film stand out. Vampyr is challenging but rewarding; it coheres not dramatically but aesthetically and thematically.
In the strangest sequence of the film, Allan Gray rests on a bench, and seemingly some sort of dream-self separates from his physical body. His dream-self continues on only to discover Gisele, a girl the village doctor had kidnapped and chained up, and a third version of himself lying in a coffin. It is difficult to determine if this is actually happening or if Gray is simply dreaming it, but once he awakes at the bench, he frees Gisele from where his dream-self saw her imprisoned.
Vampirism within the film seems to represent sin. Those who were sinful during their lives are not granted with the privilege of death, but must continue on, as vampires. Rather than exploit the mythos in obvious ways, he depicts Chopin in minimal fashion, allowing us to witness only one instance of a vampire “attack”. The only time we truly regard her as a vampire in the traditional sense, is near the end when she is defeated with a stake through the heart.
The film’s closing is both perplexing and chilling, as the doctor is locked in a cage inside a mill, by whom remains unclear, although we see one of his underlings refuse to release him. We then see the machinery of the mill start up, and the doctor is slowly drowned in flour. Meanwhile, Allan Gray and Gisele have fled by way of boat and after journeying through fog, find a bright clearing. The last image of the film is that of the mill’s machinery coming to a stop.
It is refreshing to go back and watch a film like this at a time when pop culture is fixated with vampires. Although, there are current, or recent, works of fiction that are using vampires effectively, for the most part people seem preoccupied with drivel such as Twilight, and The Vampire Diaries. Books, film, and TV are banking on the convenience of the vampire mythos with no effort to neither expand it nor utilize its potential. Unlike Dreyer, they take the easy way out.
Vampyr, based on elements from J. Sheridan Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly, but not considered an authentic adaptation, is anything but typical and stands out as one of the most unique and inventive horror films ever made. The usage of sound acts as a key supplement to the intense, foreboding atmosphere which is made evermore potent by Dreyer’s masterful mise-en-scene. Vampyr suggests a world where reality and fantasy are inseparable. It is one of the great nightmares of the cinema.
posted by adam cook