Vampyr

Movie Information

Vampyr, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St., in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.
Score:

Genre: Horror
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Henriette Gérard
Rated: NR

Perhaps the strangest horror film ever made, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) is almost entirely devoid of the outright thrills associated with the genre, while managing to be one of the creepiest, most unsettling movies you’re ever likely to see. On the surface, this is a very straightforward, simple vampire yarn. But beneath that surface, it’s really like nothing else out there. Vampyr is one of those rare, otherworldly films that truly qualifies as nightmarish. Nothing about the film—from its look to its largely amateur cast to its ungainly soundtrack—is normal.

The movie can feel like any number of things. Sometimes it smacks of the surreal, the avant-garde. (There are parts that might have been made by Buñuel or Cocteau.) Other times, it feels like a cheap B picture (think White Zombie made the same year), something exacerbated by its almost nonstop Wolfgang Zeller musical score. Occasionally, it looks like a film at least 10 years older than it is, while at other times it looks like something out of the 1950s. (The latter, I suspect, stems from a combination of the nonacting and the often spare, oddly lit settings.) Everything about it conspires to achieve its signature strangeness.

The story offers few surprises, with its passive hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), being drawn—almost pulled along—into an incident involving vampires in a rural area. However, what it instead offers is a series of utterly disturbing, generally inexplicable scenes that traffic in audience dislocation. Shadows have lives of their own. Objects move that shouldn’t. Upside-down reflections flit along the top of the frame. Footage of the shadow of someone digging a hole is printed in reverse. Numerous characters are sensed, but few are seen.

Its imagery has drifted into legend and been annexed over the years—the villainous doctor is obviously the model for Jack MacGowran in Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), while the point-of-view scene where Gray watches his own funeral through a window in his coffin forms the basis for a fantasy sequence in Ken Russell’s Mahler (1974). Experience Vampyr‘s unique atmosphere yourself. You mayn’t exactly like it, but you won’t forget it.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

15 thoughts on “Vampyr

  1. Dionysis

    I’ve never seen this film, knew virtually nothing about it but have always been curious. Thanks for this review, as I now feel compelled to see it.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’ve never seen this film, knew virtually nothing about it but have always been curious. Thanks for this review, as I now feel compelled to see it.

    I don’t think you’ll be sorry, but it does creak and it does verge on the incoherent occasionally — both of which may have something to do with why it works.

  3. Kevin Childers

    Recently sat threw my first viewing of this film.
    Plan to watch it at least 3 more times within the next week.
    Can such a film be reinvented in our time?

  4. Sean Williams

    Can such a film be reinvented in our time?

    Somehow, I doubt that the upcoming Twilight adaptation will fit the bill, what with its sappy teenage romance and vampires who glitter in the sun.

    Speaking of which, who’s reviewing that impending bomb, Mr. Hanke or Mr. Souther?

  5. Ken Hanke

    Speaking of which, who’s reviewing that impending bomb, Mr. Hanke or Mr. Souther?

    Because of my background in horror films, it’s always been a kind of given that the horror pictures fall to me, so I reckon this one’s mine. I saw a longer trailer for it on Quarantine today. What can I say? It looks absolutely appalling — unless, of course, it fills some previously unsuspected long-felt need for a vampire picture populated by guys who look like refugees from a barely-legal porn site. Maybe they should call it Twinklight and be done with it.

  6. Sean Williams

    unless, of course, it fills some previously unsuspected long-felt need for a vampire picture populated by guys who look like refugees from a barely-legal porn site.

    Have you ever encountered members this book’s fan base? I know you probably don’t hang with the eyeliner-and-thongs crowd, but seriously, these people are scary. Come to think of it, I’ve heard cogent arguments for eugenics predicated solely on the existence of a Twilight fan base.

    Sorry to bombard you with more stale webcomic humor, but…
    http://headtripcomics.comicgenesis.com/d/20080915.html

    Guess what? That plot summary? — it’s not a joke. At all.

    Have fun at the cinema, Cranky!

  7. Ken Hanke

    Have you ever encountered members this book’s fan base?

    I have only been sujected to one teenage girl who’s into this. I wouldn’t say I found her especially scary, but I do find her taste pretty darn appalling.

    I don’t doubt that that’s the actual plot. Having seen the new, longer trailer — complete with the kind of prancing gazelle vampire boys that I keep thinking are going to start singing about how “when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way” — it seems perfectly likely.

  8. Sean Williams

    I wouldn’t say I found her especially scary, but I do find her taste pretty darn appalling.

    Actually, I wasn’t just talking about the teenagers. I was talking about the adult women:
    http://www.twilightmoms.com/

    Note the helpful timebomb-style clock counting down the seconds until deton — I mean, until the première.

    complete with the kind of prancing gazelle vampire boys that I keep thinking are going to start singing about how “when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way”

    Silence yourself! Marketing agents could be eavesdropping on this forum right now!

    Good Zod, here they come like bats out of Hell. Better go underground, better run, better hide….

  9. Jeffrey DeCristofaro

    I just saw VAMPYR earlier this year when the Criterion Collection issued a 2-Disc Special Edition on DVD. Although Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE and Kathryn Bigelow’s NEAR DARK are still my top favorite vampire films, this, like those two movies, made a nice addition to my list of favorite films of all time. Yet, it’s somewhat sad that it failed commercially at the time of its release and that most people today still don’t seem to “get it.” Would you be surprised if you DID find a large number of people in Asheville who “got it?”

  10. Kevin Childers

    Most people are part of the herd. Most would not “get it” …
    even if it slapped them on their faces. Most people are
    entertained by the worst film making – and most often
    do not grasp the concepts of the early filmmakers.
    Need I say … FW Murnau?

    Point is … to make such a film as this … at such an early date,
    I find it more frightening in the sense of the unknown.
    I find it more intriguing in the sense of its artistic beauty.

    I still think Dracula with Bela Lugosi remains the best to this day.
    Just my view though.

    But … Vampyr is absolutely excellent in its concepts …
    and its eeriness. I would love to watch this film again
    with the soundtrack performed by Goblin

  11. Ken Hanke

    Would you be surprised if you DID find a large number of people in Asheville who “got it?”

    I would not surprised if I found a larger than usual number of people in Asheville who got it. But a “large” number (define large) might surprise me.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I still think Dracula with Bela Lugosi remains the best to this day. Just my view though.

    Actually, you won’t get an argument from me.

    I would love to watch this film again
    with the soundtrack performed by Goblin

    There, I’d give you an argument.

  13. Jeffrey DeCristofaro

    When I meant large, I meant the number of people in Asheville that not only include moviegoers and die-hard cinephiles like myself, but also a large number of people who are generally not crazy about movies (they occasionally go out to see a film or two but are not of the devoted “movies are my life” variety”). Considering that a number of those people also include independent artists following styles reminiscent of Dreyer’s but who probably didn’t see his work (or most movies in general), would they “get it”?

  14. Ken Hanke

    large number of people who are generally not crazy about movies (they occasionally go out to see a film or two but are not of the devoted “movies are my life” variety”).

    Yes, I would be surprised if these people would sit through the film.

    Considering that a number of those people also include independent artists following styles reminiscent of Dreyer’s but who probably didn’t see his work (or most movies in general), would they “get it”?

    My initial feeling is probably not. The reason I say this is that film continues to be looked down as a lesser art form — and that’s often truer of the artistic community than any other. I know lots of artists who are willing to grant any freedom you care to name when it comes to literature or painting or music, but who will not grant these same freedoms to films, which they prefer to be more normal and straightforward. This isn’t an across the board thing, no, but I do see a lot of it.

  15. Steven Adam Renkovish

    Awesome review of one of my favorite films. I do believe that it is one of the most beautiful films that I have ever seen.

    I hope that you are doing well, Mr. Hanke! :)

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