(1932) dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer
From childhood, I loved horror films, which at the time I refered to as “Monster Movies”, which I seem to have picked up from my mother. There wasn’t nearly the amount of literature on the films at the time, much less literature that could have been easily accessed and consumed by a child, but there were some. And I read up on them as much as I could. I was fascinated with seeing the earliest versions of films that featured monsters and was lucky enough to have seen the silent Lon Chaney versions of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). I dreamed of seeing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (erringly often referred to as “the first horror film”), Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1915), and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). It was quite interesting, taking my first film class in junior college, to discover that the films that I fantasized about seeing as a child were considered serious and important cinema as well. Expressionism,…indeed!
And over the years, I ended up seeing most of those films and many more of the Expressionist cinema, horror films, etc. I’ve seen a lot, really. But for some reason, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr had remained out of the loop. This probably actually goes back more to the lack of distribution and quality copies of the films that it never achieved at the time I was a kid the same focus as the other films. I mean, it has many Expressionist characteristics, but is from a later period, and from a different country.
I’d never seen any of Dreyer’s films, though his The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) has often been heralded and he has been the major figure in Danish cinema. Vampyr is pretty interesting, for many reasons, but one of the things that struck me so was the camera movement. The camera tracks around corners, through doorways, around bannisters. The movement is very alive and is so unusual for the period of this film, which came right as sound was changing cinema so dramatically. Vampyr could easily be a silent film. It uses intertitles to give text from book that is being read and some portions of narrative that would be difficult to glean otherwise. The film is intensely visual.
The story is a little hard to follow. The DVD that I saw of it wasn’t particularly showing a pristine print. And the whole thing has this Surrealist nightmare of logic and flow, drifting into segments of story without a lot of explication. The shadows that move unattached are particularly striking. And later we find out that, I think, they are the shadows of dead criminals who abet vampires in their crimes. Though the story is austensibly adapted from Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel In a Glass Darkly, who knows? The film is visually impressive, but in more subtle ways than would offer a fantastic still image to blaze the pages of a book on the subject. For me, as I mentioned, the movement really sets the tone and the discordance of the narrative. It’s disconnecting and strange, something I would speculate would have impressed and charmed the Surrealists (though I could be wrong about that).