In keeping with their month-long Halloween theme, World Cinema is bringing back Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), which is possibly the most polarizing of all classical-era horror films. It took a while for me to learn to like the film, and even now—unless I’m really in the mood for its strangeness—I’m quite capable of thinking it’s the most utter tosh. And yet, I know it’s not. Well, at least I think I know that. I definitely know that it’s unique and uniquely eerie—perched as it is on the crossroads between a plain horror film and avant-garde art movie. What’s curious is that it has refused to budge from that position for nearly 80 years now. I’d heard about it for years, but actually bumped into it quite by accident on TV in the middle of the night. It was already in progress, and my immediate reaction—without recognizing what it was—was fascination mixed with an undeniable bout of “what the f**kness.” Having just watched it again, my response is still conflicted, though more positive. The story is basic enough—even if it invents a good deal of its own vampire lore (so what else is new?)—following the experiences of Allan Gray (Julian West), a young man on holiday, who, stopping at a peculiar inn, finds himself wrapped up in an incident involving vampires. It proceeds along a more or less normal path for a film of its kind. And yet not one single thing in the film can be called “normal” in any constructive sense of the term. Instead, what we have is 73 minutes of being trapped in a nightmare world—an extremely creepy nightmare world—with its own logic. A great many people like to excuse the shaky narratives in more modern Eurohorror by claiming the films work on “dream logic.” That’s largely banana oil. But this isn’t—this genuinely is in a kind of “dream logic.” And it’s unlike anything before or since.
What sets Vampyr apart from these later day “dream logic” movies is that the logic isn’t an excuse for inept plotting. Vampyr has a completely thought-out plot and it sticks to it. The film follows a basic storyline admirably. Allan Gray is drawn into a local mystery by a strange man (Maurice Schultz) who appears in his room and gives him a wrapped book (“to be opened upon my death”). Gray proceeds to see just what’s going on, feeling compelled to help. What he finds in the town defies all reason, but Gray rather blandly accepts this world in which shadows have a life of their own, shadows flit about where they oughtn’t be and even (thanks to printing the film backwards) appear to be shoveling magically appearing earth back into a hole. In fact, he’s wandered into a world of shadows that appears to be controlled by a mysterious old woman (Henriette Gerard) and her familiars, the village doctor (Jan Hieronimko) and a policeman (Georges Boidin) with a wooden leg. For that matter—depending on the shot—the old woman seems less than substantial.
Gray’s wanderings (they’re too unfocused to be called investigations) lead him to an overgrown manor where he discovers that one of the daughters of the owner, Leone (Sybille Schmitz)—who turns out to be the man who visited him in his room at the inn—has fallen prey to some mysterious malady. The modern viewer knows what this means, the 1932 moviegoer may not have. The film then proceeds along more or less standard lines, but the truth is that nothing is standard about what happens, even if all the conventions—and a few more—are in place. Without even getting into the film’s numerous stylistic shudders, there’s the whole business of the book Gray was given. Not only does it provide key information to the characters, but it turns out—in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in a dream—to include the very story we’re watching, which is then played out.
What is most remembered about the film are individual—often brief—bits. The vampire silencing the shadow-play revelers of a village dance, the one-legged policeman whose shadow casually rejoins his body, the incredible sequence where Gray experiences his own funeral (both from within and without the coffin), Leone’s transformation into a blood-lusting creature, the doctor trapped in the flour mill—all these are generally cited when discussing the film. But it’s really the cumulative effect of these—and at least a dozen other moments—that gives the film its eerie, discomforting power.
It’s possible to read the film simply as a very strange horror movie, but it would be a mistake to approach it expecting anything like the horror films being made at the same time in Hollywood. Even though it has a few moments of full-throated horror, it’s not much like those. It’s at once a film that seems far older than it is and one that has more in common with things like Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968). It also has something of the feel of Cocteau or Bunuel (though with none of his playfulness or his anger). In the end, it’s completely its own film—something that exists strangely out of time. It has influenced much (not always horror films as witness the funeral in Ken Russell’s 1974 film Mahler). Yet no one has ever tried to duplicate it. That’s probably wise.