Vampyr: vampire horror film explores issues of human existence

Carl Theodor Dreyer, “Vampyr” (1932)

Made originally as a silent movie with a voice and musical soundtrack added later, this film boasts very creative if contrary ideas and perceptions about film-making as an art-form in its own right as opposed to telling moving stories, and about the story-telling process itself. Loosely based on a collection of short stories by Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu, “Vampyr” follows a young man David Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg under the alias of Julian West, who helped finance the film) who does research on Satanism and folk superstitions. His research takes him to a French town called Courtempierre where, while staying at an inn, he is visited by an elderly stranger (Maurice Schutz) who appeals for help and leaves a book package for him. Gray follows the stranger to a mansion where the old man is the owner and father of two sisters living there. The man dies from gunshot wounds just as Gray arrives. He is introduced to the two young sisters, of whom one is bedridden with a wasting disease. Viewers quickly see that the girl, Leone (Sybille Schmitz), has suffered bites to the neck and Gray and a servant (Albert Bras) learn from the father’s book brought by Gray that she may be the vicitm of a vampire.

The film looks badly made with flickering backgrounds but the washed-out effect is deliberate; Dreyer had been seeking a particular “look” to the film and discovered it by accident when a can of film was exposed. The bleached appearance makes interiors of rooms come “alive”, vibrating with a sinister, hidden force and outdoor scenes look unnaturally bright and animated. Even grass and leaves on tree branches swaying with the breeze look fearsomely alive as though inhabited by demon spirits. Lighting contrasts appear stronger than they should be and areas that are lit up burn with intensity. This creates an atmosphere where emotions override reason and intellect, and either lethargy or irrationality governs people’s actions. In those parts of the film where a storm occurs, windows and glass panes in doors light up and pulse with bright ferocity as though just behind them Hell has just erupted with volcanic ire.

The narrative doesn’t flow the way viewers might expect: the film often presents montages of “still life” shots or moving dioramas of shadow play. Most scenes have a very static quality even when actual actors are moving or the camera is panning around or back-tracking. A few figures are introduced quite early in the film whom audiences assume will play significant roles but these characters are never seen again. In one memorable shot, a soldier is sits on a bench quietly while his shadow comes by and sits on the bench’s shadow; later when the soldier gets up and walks off, the shadow walks away in the opposite direction. Are the person and the shadow important to the movie? As it turns out, no. There is also a sequence of dancing shadows on a wall which the camera follows while dance music is interspersed with the main musical soundtrack: a very unusual and quite creepy piece of filming which heightens the sense of dread and enclosed paranoia. The “show, don’t tell” approach to advance the plot is abandoned: various titled card insertions, meant as pages in the book the servant reads, not only give information on how to destroy vampires but, in the absence of dialogue, alerts the audience to what Gray or the servant will do.

Gray himself isn’t an active character: throughout the film he seems aimless and reacts to people and events around him in an almost robotic way. He allows a doctor (Jan Hieronimko) to siphon blood from him, not realising the doctor is an ally of the vampire who has bitten Leone. Though viewers assume Gray to be the film’s hero in a conventional sense, and the film initially points that way with the old man handing him the package, he ends up superfluous to the “plot” and merely assists the servant “hero”. The servant later appears a “villain” in the way he cruelly despatches the doctor in a flour mill.

There are passages in the film which may or may not be diversions from the main plot: most notably, in the second half of “Vampyr”, Gray has an out-of-body dream experience while at a cemetery, follows the doctor and sees his body in a coffin; the point of view switches to the body itself, as though Gray’s soul has re-entered the body there and then, and the coffin is then taken away for burial with the camera pointing up at the blank sky and town buildings passing on either side of the screen. At the moment the coffin arrives at the burial plot, Gray wakes up on his cemetery seat and sees the servant opening the coffin. This is perhaps the most memorable and terrifying part of the film which might not necessarily have anything to do with the plot but seems to be a meditation on death and what happens to the soul after death. Seen from a psychological viewpoint, Gray’s astral trip may serve as a metaphor for mental fragmentation and the dissolving of identity, exemplified by his soul following the doctor, and the entire film itself has the look of a terrifying dream. Other “irrelevant” parts include Gray meeting the doctor before he arrives at the mansion and a part near the end where Gray and Leone’s sister Gisele (Rena Mandel) row a boat on a lake.

In all of this, the vampire itself never appears: a corpse said to be the vampire is impaled with an iron stake and Leone seems to recover but this could be a suggestion implanted in viewers’ minds by the pages of the book the servant has read. The vampire seems an elemental force that is nowhere and yet everywhere in the film, hidden in natural phenomena, in the lurid interiors of the mansion, the shadows that appear, even in the medium of the film itself as demonstrated by its bleached look. Perhaps in that aforementioned dream experience that Gray has, the blank sky that his dead face was gazing at was or held the vampire being?

“Vampyr” certainly makes no attempt to appeal to a wide audience: all elements integral to a story on film are turned on their head in some way. Acting as such is natural, most of the actors being amateurs whom Dreyer knew personally. Schmitz (the only trained actor) as Leone gives quite a performance with her face going from pained and agonised to smirking malevolence as she appears to transform into a vampire herself. Events appear disconnected from one another, there’s no sense of cause and effect or any similar sequencing, and viewers must assume everything they see is either important or irrelevant. Even the plot itself barely holds the film together and is merely a medium for themes Dreyer may have wanted to explore: what it must mean to die and to be dead, the vampire as metaphor for disease and sexuality, and blood as metaphor for the life-force which sustains identity and wholeness.

For those who are open to watching visual media in ways beyond a strict story-telling or linear narrative structure, this film is highly recommended as a lesson in how the vampire horror genre can be used to explore issues of human existence in an original and experimental way.

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