If there is a difference between horror and suspense, it might might be said to come down to a question of opacity. Horror shows its hand; suspense keeps it hid but implies strongly. But perhaps more importantly, suspense isn’t necessarily meant to scare so much as to create a mood, an atmosphere in which anything — probably the worst anything — can happen. Despite featuring an undead blood sucker, a malevolent doctor, and a one-legged murderer, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) can’t really be said to be a horror film. It does, however, create a morbidly grim atmosphere that also manages to playfully tap into the realm of dreams and nightmares. The film is awash in strange lighting schemes, misbehaving shadows, off-kilter angles, and unorthodox performances, the sum of which create a picture that engages even as it strains comprehension. Vampyr is a movie of details more than a movie of scares, but its deliberate pace and bravura camerawork create a compact world of hypnotic beauty and grimy tension. (73 min.)
S. – I was not sure what to expect from this film, the vampire genre is not a favorite of mine yet Dreyer was responsible for the magnificent The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) which is firmly embedded in my current Top 10. Happily the Dreyer aesthetic is unmistakable and, being such as early film, we are spared the cheesy vampire-tropes that make the genre so tiresome to me. As you say in the intro, J., this film falls into the realm of suspense rather than horror (albeit with only limited success), but it is an effective vehicle for some directorial creativity. The level of detail in the sets is amazing, all of the actors look superb and the camera work is both innovative and engaging. The story told could not be more different than that of the previous film we have seen from Dreyer, yet the wonderful shot composition in scene after scene marks it as his own.
J. – I was also unsure what to expect from Vampyr, and was decidedly mixed in my anticipation. I’m not a fan of horror movies in general — I don’t like being scared and I don’t understand the impulse behind intentionally trying to scare yourself. To be fair, I didn’t think a movie from the early 30s would scare me (and it didn’t), but I still don’t care for the genre. However, my only other exposure to Dreyer’s work is the aforementioned Joan of Arc, which is currently at #1 in my Top 10… As of Yet list, and I think it very likely to remain in that spot. I was bowled over by the performances, the tone, the camerawork, and the imagery of Joan, and therefore was hoping Vampyr would be of similar quality. Ultimately the film doesn’t live up to Joan but is well above the horror slough, with the story being rather lacking but the visuals and feel being rather remarkable.
I believe that feel is the most important aspect of this movie. The plot amounts to little, with hero Allan Grey stumbling upon a town plagued by a vampire, which has bitten a local girl. The girl’s father enlists Allan’s help to destroy the monster before his daughter succumbs to the vampire’s curse. The story and the acting rarely caught my attention but there is a mood that the film sustains throughout that is marvelously engaging and kept me enthralled. That mood definitely failed on one level, in so much as I was more inclined to grin than to grimace during what is ostensibly a horror story, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. I was particularly taken by some of the early scenes that make excellent use of reflections and shadows. I love the shot as Allan (played by Julian West, a Russian aristocrat who financed the film) notices the reflection of a non-existent man running along the riverbank. And even better is the ghostly mill in which shadows dance and frolic without being attached to any living master. Another effective sequence was the crosscutting between Allan entering an inn for the night and a farmer with a scythe signaling for a ferry — the connotations of death and despair ring through clearly without a word being spoken.
S. – The production is still very much in the mode of a silent film. Expressions are held for a few beats longer than is natural and some of the imagery is repeated to help set the mood. In clumsier hands this can be irritating but Dreyer puts so much thought and energy into each scene that the effect is spell-binding. Dialogue is used sparingly leaving the visuals to do most of the talking. This can be a great way to increase the tension, such as when the father of the vampire-bitten girl enters Allan Grey’s room where he lies in bed or the sequence where Allan is enclosed within a coffin. But the action never reaches the point where you feel truly uneasy about what will happen next. The story itself is somewhat confusing, although this may be due to the loss of a complete version, the Vampyr we watched was stitched together from partial French and German editions. Perhaps the complete and original footage would have provided enough insight to ratchet up the tension.
J. – Yeah, Vampyr is never particularly tense or dangerous, creating instead a suspense that emerges from uncertainty and the sheer otherworldliness of the imagery. A great example is the scene you mentioned where the father comes into Allan’s room. Before the old man enters a light begins to fill the corner of the room and then dims away again when the man exits. That light is never explained, and the old man character is not a sinister one, so ultimately it’s the sheer strangeness of the event that lends the scene power. Vampyr is filled with little moments like that where special effects are used to create a dream-reality rather than a menacing sphere of danger. In some respects, Vampyr is much closer in feel and look to something like the surrealist experiment of L’Age d’Or (1930) then the stylized horror of Nosferatu (1922) — although the fractured angles and deep shadows of German Expressionism are a definite touchstone for the film.
You’re definitely right though about it being essentially a silent film. Not only are snatches of spoken dialogue few and far between, intertitles and passages from a book are frequently used to explain what is going on. In many ways though, I think that works to the film’s benefit. Certainly with regard to developing a silent tension, as you mentioned, but the lack of sound also allows for Dreyer to get really crazy with the camerawork. Early sound films tended to be very stagy because the actors couldn’t stray from the microphone, but the camera and the players in Vampyr move all over the place. There was one particular shot I really loved (starting at the 34 min mark), where the camera moves throughout much of the ground floor of the house in a single take, elaborately involving all of the residents and staff in choreographed movement both inside and outside the building. Dreyer generally appears to have an eye for composition and movement that is leagues beyond other filmmakers from this period.
S. – Imagery is definitely Dreyer’s forte. He frequently experiments with different devices to add to the emotion of a scene. The outdoor shots of vampire-victim Léone are hazy and dreamlike, whereas within the house all of the actors are shown in sharp contrast that seems to add to their distress. Double-exposures were used to great effect illustrating the out-of-body experience following a vampire encounter, with the solid body image left stranded and prostrate while the shadowy conscious self dissociates and moves swiftly onward in search of answers. As you mentioned, J., a book was used to supply the relevant vampire lore to the story with different actors pouring over the pages at various times during the film. In this way we know that Léone is doomed and driven to suicidal thoughts by the revulsion of her own lust for blood. This conflict was acted out very earnestly using tightly-framed head shots of the actress in a style reminiscent of Joan of Arc. So while the scare-factor and body count was set to low throughout, there is a rich variety of visual trickery to keep you glued to the screen.
J. – The use of a hazy, grainy style whenever the film was outside was an interesting choice, and did lend the film a dreamy, fantasy feel. Apparently this effect was achieved by literally filming through a sheet of gauze. The transformation of Leone after she is bitten by the vampire really is reminiscent of Dreyer’s work with Maria Falconetti in Joan of Arc in that segue from weepy to crazed, but it definitely didn’t have anywhere near the same weight and power. That lack of oomph in the performance is unfortunately a feature of pretty much every character in Vampyr. I’m sure part of that is due to the extensive use of non-professional actors in Vampyr (although Sybille Schmitz, who played Léone, was one of the few legit actors in the cast). The performers were clearly cast based on their appearance (or, in the case of the lead actor, because he ponied up the cash), and Dreyer uses them more like props then actors — a move that stresses the premium placed on the visual aspects of the film. What appealed so strongly to me about Joan of Arc was that it looked amazing and the performances were remarkable and emotionally raw. That’s not the case here — not by a long shot — and the film does suffer for it.
S. – I think you are spot on, J., to say the actors were used like props, many times they are virtually motionless, more mannequins than characters. I wonder if this also contributed to the overall lack of suspense, I was never convinced they were real people in real danger. Quite a few times I felt as though the actors playing Allan and Gisèle (Léone’s sister) didn’t know what to do next so they just froze in place looking troubled. There is no denying that the film looked wonderful and I found this entertaining in itself, however, I was disappointed by the muddled narrative. The sequence where Allan ends up in a coffin after donating blood to the sick Léone is wonderfully shot (I especially like the window in the coffin for his face and the “dust to dust” slogan painted on the lid). But it is never adequately explained how he ends up in that predicament or how it gets out of it. The demise of the wicked doctor is also very enjoyably constructed but doesn’t really make sense. Such a sloppy narrative would normally completely ruin a movie for me but I still found Vampyr compelling to watch. In this case style makes up for the lack of substance.
J. – I agree completely, S. The coffin sequence is marvelous, particularly with those amazing upward shots showing Allan’s view from inside the coffin, but it makes no sense whatsoever. Allan passes out on a bench, his spirit leaves him and goes to the evil doctor’s house, he discovers his own body in a coffin, the doctor and the one-legged man screw the coffin lid closed (which for some reason has a window over Allan’s face), they carry the coffin away, as the coffin procession reaches the bench Allan’s spirit returns to his body (which apparently never left the bench), the coffin and pall bearers disappear, and corporeal Allan runs off to take care of the vampire. Writing that out makes it sound even more ridiculous, but it was awesome to watch in the moment.
So the acting isn’t great, the use of sound is poor, the plot is thin and incomprehensible — but I loved it. The feel and look of Vampyr were so enjoyable that I’m willing to forgive it pretty much all of its faults. I’m quite pleased that Dreyer has three more films on the list. By the end of this experiment he might end up being my favorite visual stylist in all of cinema!