In my book, Carl Theodor Dreyer can do no wrong, his adaptation of The Passion of Joan of Arc is without out contest one of the greatest pieces of cinema ever produce and with this knowledge going into my month of horror films I leapt at the opportunity to include his work Vampyr in the list of films I would watch and review. I am here to attest to the brilliance that exudes throughout this grand piece of cinema and could very well make a short list of the best cinematography I have seen in a black and white film to date sitting nicely aside Last Year at Marienbad and Carnival of Souls (A film that may end up being reviewed within the month). However, what surprised me the most about watching Vampyr, is that in relation to the other movies I have watched thus far, it may well be the scariest of them all, particularly in its starkness and the way the sets and their shadows invade every mise-en-scene, never allowing for a moment of comfort or familiarity. Furthermore, without the use of heavy make up or an onslaught of CGI, Dreyer manages to make some creepy vampires simply by great casting and demanding some driven performances by the actors involved in the film. Traipsing the line between silent and talkie film, Vampyr is both an experiment in filmmaking with its horror themes, as well as a perfectly crafted execution of melodramatic traditions. I am ready with much conviction to claim this as my new favorite Dreyer film, not only because it deals with his traditional themes of religion, and the existential self in times of death, but because it is far and away one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, more so I have not found myself asking "how did they do that scene" as much as I did during Vampyr since I initially viewed Inception, and the later had the benefit of 75 plus years of technological advancements to make it look so cool. Vampyr is a masterpiece and a film that is beyond fully realized one that is a pleasure to watch and ends all too soon.
Vampyr focuses on a journey undertaken by a traveller and lover of the bizarre named Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg) to a remote village known as Courtempierre. When Allan takes up residence at a local in he is bothered by voices on his very first night, ones that lead him to an old man who provides him with a package that he demands be opened upon the old man's death. Taking it in a bit of suspicion, Allan is then led to a manor in the village by an assortment of bizarre and inexplicable shadow figures. Entering the manner, Allan witnesses the man he just saw being murder, leading to him opening the package to discover a book detailing the horrific exploits of demons known as Vampyrs, and of their particular effect on the town of Courtempierre. Simultaneously, Allen discovers that a young woman in the manor named Leone (Sybille Schmitz) has taken seriously ill, or as he realizes has become infected with the curse of the vampyrs. This leads to a confrontation with the local doctor, who Allan suspects as being a henchmen of the vampyrs, and Allan demands that the doctor perform a blood transfusion between himself and Leone. After an incredibly unusual nightmare sequence in which Allan watches himself being buried alive, he comes to the aid of Leone, as well as her sister Gisele (Rena Mandele) who Allan has taken a liking to, which involves driving a stake through the dead body of a local woman who is believed to be the origin of the vampyr curse. While seeking refuge in a mill, the doctor who has been an aide to the vampyrs becomes trapped under falling flour, while Gisele and Allan cross a river into an idyllic forest, suggesting movement to a better place. The film then closes as the cogs in the mill begin to slow down, almost as though the flow of time itself had stopped.
As I noted in the introduction, Dreyer's films almost always preoccupy themselves with notions of death and how one's spirituality plays into coming to terms with such occurrences. If one looks at the text cards throughout the film, they alone help to indicate the possible religious commentaries, as well as existential motifs that run through the film, whether it be the hourglasses signifying time or the crosses helping to differentiate good and evil they serve a purpose to remind viewers of what morals they can glean from the film. Furthermore, a couple of scenes in which Dreyer breaks the fourth wall, as well as some stunning point of view shots later in the film allow for the viewer to assume the role of the protagonist in the film, subsequently reinforcing the themes and religious commentary latent in the film. The overarching commentary then becomes something to the nature of the importance os self-sacrifice in the name of good and a suggestion that in performing such an act a person affords an opportunity to directly confront evil and if successful ultimately destroy its existence. However, Dreyer is careful not to claim that this action is by any means easy. Allan's out of body experience reflects a sort of existential reflection about his life and the reality of such sacrifices, in that he essentially witnesses his own death a vision that is eerie because once again it is done in a pseudo-point of view manner that causes the viewer to simultaneously consider their own life. One could easily walk away from Vampyr brooding over their own life in relation to the cogs of time and while that may seem like an awful experience, perhaps it is not all together a bad thing.
Key Scene: Either the shadow directions or the funeral procession, both are equally stunning.
This is a movie you need, no excuse necessary as to why you do not own it. Criterion has a DVD available, go ahead and buy yourself and me a copy.