Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr first published by Film4

Summary: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first sound-film is a nightmarishly disorienting reverie on the vampire myth.   

Review: In the first ever vampire film Nosferatu (1922), FW Murnau used the full expressionist force of his black-and-white imagery to underscore the conflict between darkness and light that is so essential to vampire mythology. Made almost a decade later, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s lesser known (but in many ways superior) Vampyr similarly plays out in a twilit shadow-world (even its protagonist has the surname Gray), but it could not be more different in both source and sensibility from either Murnau’s classic, or indeed Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula (with Bela Lugosi) made for Universal Pictures – the latter of which unfairly delayed the release of Vampyr by several years, and probably contributed to its initially poor reception.

Where Nosferatu and Dracula were both relatively close adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1987 novel Dracula, Vampyr instead cites as its literary source Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s horror story collection In a Glass Darkly (1872), which nonetheless it could hardly be accused of adapting with anything like fidelity to the original. Rather, for his first sound-film Dreyer merely borrows one or two broad motifs from Le Fanu’s stories (chiefly the vampirism – but not the lesbianism – of Carmilla, and the live burial from The Room in The Dragon Volant). There is little of the gothic to be found in Vampyr, which has a contemporary setting and fleshes out the barest bones of vampirological convention with all manner of uncanny oddities and in-camera trompe l’oeil more at home in the recent surrealist experiments of Dalí, Buñuel and Cocteau than in the pages of Victoriana. 

Here the action, apparently spanning a single night, seems for the most part to unfold in the subconscious of its dreaming protagonist. As the text at the film’s beginning states, vampire-obsessed Allan Gray (Julian West) is “a dreamer and fantasist, lost at the border between reality and the supernatural.” Arriving late in the evening at a riverside inn in the hamlet of Courtempierre, the impressionable Gray has his imagination fired by the sight of a reaper, a ferryman, a creepy engraving of a deathbed scene, and a muttering old blind man from the room upstairs. Finally getting to sleep, Gray receives a nocturnal visit from a grave gentleman (Maurice Schutz) who has a cryptic message for him (“Silence – she mustn’t die”) as well as a carefully wrapped book “to be opened upon my death.”

Gray heads out into the night to a strange, labyrinthine abode nearby inhabited by (literally) dancing shadows, a peg-legged man, a sinister doctor (Jan Hieronimko) with a caged parrot, and a commanding old woman named Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard). Moving on to a chateau, Gray witnesses the shotgun murder of the gentleman who had visited him earlier, and the gradual deathbed dissolution of the gentleman’s eldest daughter Léone (Sybille Schmitz) under the influence of malevolent forces – forces which the gentleman’s book reveals to be vampiric in nature. Gray soon finds himself trapped in a supernatural conflict with Chopin’s minions as, struggling to save Léone and her sister Gisèle (Rena Mandel), he must offer his own blood and confront his own death – or at least see in the light of the new day.     

As befits a film whose plot could be summarised “a bookish traveller has a nightmare…”, the ‘events’ in Vampyr follow their own dark, irrational path, where sleep is never far from death. It is possible to see how the furnishings of Gray’s dream at the inn are linked to his pre-sleep experiences and peoccupations, but the correspondences are never exact – much as, within the dream itself, shadows take on a separate existence from the bodies to which they were once attached. At one point, Gray (or at least Gray’s dream-self) is shown falling asleep on a bench near the chateau, only for a spectral doppelgänger to rise from his slumbering body and to discover a third (or is it fourth?) Gray lying supine in a coffin, immobile but open-eyed (as if in a waking dream) – and then the action shifts to the awful perspective of this ‘corpse’, whose burial is interrupted only by the Gray who is asleep on the park bench suddenly waking up. 

All this business is cast as a diabolically complicated dream-within-a-dream(-within-a-dream), but the precise boundaries of these dreams remain disturbingly unclear. Although the film ends with the coming of dawn, it is witnessed merely by Gray within the dream. We do not find out if the Gray back at the inn ever similarly wakes up to dispel all the horrors of the previous night. Perhaps he is forever trapped within the mechanisms of his own infernal fantasies (not unlike the wicked doctor, seen being smothered at film’s close by a mill’s grinding machinery) – or perhaps, after a troubled night, he is just sleeping in… 

One thing is for sure, though: few other films could claim to channel the spirit of the uncanny with such unsettling success. Vampyr fills the real locations of Courtempierre with spooky shadow play, eerie noises-off and hypnotic performances (made even more otherworldly by the unnatural post-synchronised dialogue), all captured off-kilter by Rudolph Maté’s reeling camerawork (that refuses to settle on a unified point-of-view). For those who, like Gray, desire it, there is the skeleton of a vampire story buried somewhere in here (albeit a vampire story whose chief antagonist ends up rather unconventionally buried alive in a cascade of white flour), but it is all the narrative discontinuties and unexplained details that make Dreyer’s film haunt the mind long after the cogs seen in its final image – as well as the film reels that they resemble – have stopped rolling. For the viewer, like Gray, can easily become “lost” in Dreyer’s world of shifting borders, somewhere between illusion and reality, sleep and death, silent and talkie.  

Verdict: In a triumph of the irrational, Dreyer’s eerie memento mori never allows either protagonist or viewer fully to wake up from its surreal nightmare.  

© Anton Bitel