Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Vampyr by Carl T.H. Dreyer

Vampyr is a 1932 german-french horror film by Danish director Carl T.H. Dreyer. It is very loosely based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu short story collection In a Glass Darkly.

It is about a man who studies the occult, Allan Grey (played by the film's producer, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg under the stage name Julian West). These studies has made him into "eine träumer und phantasten" (a dreamer and fantasist) In the beginning of the film he comes to the small French village of Courtempierre (a real place, the film was shot on location). When Grey is staying at the inn, he meets under strange circumstances the owner of a manor in the village, whose daughter Léone is the victim of a vampire. Grey decides to help.

That is the plot, but it doesn't do the film justice. It really has no plot.The film is surrealist and doesn't try to make much logical sense. It is an exercise in creating a surreal and dreamy atmosphere, filled with dread. Vampyr is really a irrationalist and romantic attempt to make a nightmare on celluiod, and one of the most successful ones. It is as such not really amenable to rationalist analysis. The results are very creepy and deeply unsettling.

The cinematography is made by perhaps the greatest cinematographer to ever live, Rudolph Mate, and is absolutely brilliant. The imagery is memorable, atmospheric and beautiful.  The film is (literally) shot through gauze and apparently deliberately overexposed giving it a blurry, washed-out dreamlike look, that adds to the film's nightmarish quality. Vampyr is deeply influenced by German expressionist filmmaking, which especially shows in its excellent use of shadows, but it is no way second to it's influences.

Vampyr does have sound, but dialogue is sparse and it is mostly silent, even using title cards at times. This adds to the film's tone. The acting is surprisingly good, considering most of the actors were complete amateurs. Dreyer coaxes out of them very non-naturalistic performances, which just makes the dreamy mood stronger. A case in point is the main actor Baron De Gunzberg, who gives a very flat, emotionless performance, which however fits perfectly with the surreal events in the film, despite being lacking from a traditional perspective.

Indeed, in order to appreciate Vampyr,  one must abandon all traditional expectations and instead embrace it's surrealist nature.  And from that perspective, Vampyr is a masterpiece. The only comparisons one can make is to films like Das cabinet des Dr. Caligari and especially Murnau's Nosferatu. And it is one of the few films which can stand up to such comparison. While not as well known, Vampyr fully deserves to have it's place among them as a surreal horror masterpiece.

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