Movies: Vampyr (1932)

1932’s Vampyr is one of those movies that I always felt like I needed to get around to seeing, as it was one that often came up on lists of most influential horror films, as well as lists of influential horror films that were still underseen and underrated. While I’ll admit that it’s much less straightforward and much more experimental than the iconic Universal horror films of the 1930s that most horror fans are familiar with, there’s something pleasingly nightmarish about its bizarre, disjointed narrative and creepy, surreal visuals that really establishes a whole unsettling mood, even though it’s not always entirely clear what exactly is going on.

Directed by Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer, already lauded in his time for his 1928 classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr was something of a complicated and troubled production whose behind-the-scenes struggles are just as interesting as the movie itself. Dreyer and his collaborator, Christen Jul, wrote the script for the film based on two novellas in Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 collection In a Glass Darkly: one of those stories was the famous lesbian vampire tale Carmilla, and the other was a mystery called The Room in the Dragon Volant, which centered around a premature burial.

Dreyer wanted to make a vampire film in particular because the 1927 stage production of Dracula had been so successful, and vampires were sort of a hot commodity in entertainment at the time. He started working on what would become Vampyr in 1929, and it was to be his first film with sound, though because he still wasn’t all that confident in his ability to make the transition from silent film, Vampyr is largely silent anyway, with very minimal dialogue, and title cards appearing on screen periodically to inform the audience what’s happening. The actors actually mouthed the dialogue in three different languages—English, French, and German—with the dubbing provided mostly by other voice actors in post-production. Notably, though, it doesn’t appear that the English-language version was ever finished; the print I watched (on HBO Max; it was the Criterion Collection version) was in German with English subtitles and English title cards.

The movie also featured a cast almost entirely comprised of non-actors, some of which were just spotted on trains and in restaurants and asked to be in the film because they had a particular look. The main character, a traveler by the name of Allan Gray, is played by a wealthy French socialite and magazine editor named Nicolas de Gunzburg, who helped to finance the film and also insisted on being credited under the pseudonym Julian West to avoid embarrassing his prominent family.

Dreyer, it seems, was less concerned about narrative cohesion than he was with doing something different, with “breaking new ground” in cinema as a medium. To that end, he employed several cool visual tricks, like shooting some of the outdoor scenes through a piece of gauze to give it a blurred, otherworldly look; utilizing more kinetic panning shots as opposed to the more fixed camera placements seen in most other films of the era; and playing a lot with shadows and double exposures.

The movie was finished in 1931, but was delayed by nine months because Universal insisted on their Dracula and Frankenstein coming out first. Whether this was a factor in the way Vampyr was received isn’t known with any certainty, but what is known is that both critics and audiences didn’t respond well to Vampyr, to say the very least. One reviewer called it “one of the worst films I have ever attended,” and at one showing, members of the audience demanded their money back, then started a riot when they were refused. The reaction, in fact, was so negative that Dreyer himself suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized for a time.

Obviously, though, Vampyr has been reassessed over the years, and is now recognized for the influential classic that it is. Watching it is very much like viewing a long bad dream, and although I didn’t find it as impactful or as eerie as Nosferatu, it still has some spooky power to it, although even by 1930s standards it’s very slowly paced.

As I mentioned, our main protagonist is Allan Gray, a traveler with an interest in devil worship and vampires. He goes to a small French town called Courtempierre and books a night at an inn, but shortly after going to bed, a strange old man comes purposefully into his room, staring at him unsettlingly and leaving a small package on the desk on which he writes, “To be opened upon my death.” Then he leaves, the only words he speaks being, “She mustn’t die. Do you understand?” This is a great setup, and got me into the story right away.

There then follows a dreamlike sequence where Allan first sees an old woman and an old man who kinda looks like Albert Einstein wandering around who will factor into the plot later on, and then he’s evidently led to a manor house by a bunch of weird disembodied shadow people doing various things around the town, such as dancing at a party, sitting on benches, and digging a grave in reverse. When he gets to the house, he sees the old man who left the package, but as Allan looks through the window, one of the shadow people shoots him dead. Alarmed, he runs inside to help, but it’s too late.

The servants ask him to stay, so he does, and he finds out that the dead old guy’s daughter Léone is sick, and because it’s a vampire movie, you know what that means. Allan opens the package the man left him, and it’s a book about vampires, several pages of which are put up on screen for long periods throughout the film, so you can read the information for yourself. Most of it is standard vampire stuff, but there was some lore in there I hadn’t heard before, such as the ghosts of executed criminals being like vampire henchmen, and vampires coaxing their victims into committing suicide so they’ll turn undead quicker (a particular point that also factors into this story).

Allan ends up agreeing to a blood transfusion to try to save Léone, mindful of her father’s admonition to not let her die. But in the course of staying in the house with the family (which also features a younger sister named Gisèle, who at one stage is on the wrong end of Léone’s disquieting and bloodthirsty gaze), Allan starts to suspect that the Albert Einstein looking chap—who is actually the village doctor and is never given a name—is up to some shady business, and is actually trying to poison Léone, presumably because he’s either the vampire himself, or is working for whoever is the actual vampire.

It turns out (spoiler alert for a movie that’s nine decades old) to be the latter, as the real vampire is the old woman Allan saw earlier, Marguerite Chopin. In the course of the oddly stilted and fractured struggle against the villains, Gisèle gets kidnapped by the doctor, and Allan has a wonderfully chilling out of body experience in which he sees himself buried alive by the doctor and Marguerite. I think this sequence was my favorite out of the whole film, as it cut back and forth from Allan’s wide-eyed dead face peering through the glass window on his coffin, to the perspective he would have seen as he was carried out of the church and toward the graveyard, seeing the sky and the trees and the villains from below and through a small square aperture.

Everything is sorted out in the end, though: Allan wakes up and helps a servant stake Marguerite with an iron bar; Gisèle is found and rescued; and the ghost of the old guy who got shot earlier returns, kills one of the henchmen, and chases the doctor out of the house. The doctor subsequently flees to a mill, where the hero servant locks him in a chamber and dumps flour on him until he suffocates.

If you have any interest at all in the foundations of horror cinema, then this is definitely one you should check out. I’m not gonna lie: it’s very slow despite its brief, 73-minute runtime, and sometimes you don’t have a really solid handle on what’s happening, title cards or no. But the visuals are very effective and sort of surreal, and the movie establishes a palpable mood of unease that permeates the proceedings, even when not much is really happening. It was a fascinating experiment for the time, for sure, and it’s an intriguing contrast to the less ambiguous, more crowd-pleasing Universal films that came out at the same time.

Until next time, keep it creepy my friends.

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