197. VAMPYR (1932)

Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey; Castle of Doom (alternate English version)

“I just wanted to make a film different from all other films. I wanted, if you will, to break new ground for the cinema. That is all. And do you think this intention has succeeded? Yes, I have broken new ground.”–Carl Theodore Dreyer on Vampyr

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julian West, Jan Hieronimko, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz

PLOT: Allen Gray, a student of the occult, wanders to the small hamlet of Courtempierre. There, he witnesses ghostly visions and meets an old man who is soon killed by an assassin’s bullet. The man’s sickly daughter lies in bed, her blood drained by a vampire, and Gray takes it upon himself to find the source of the contagion.

Still from Vampyr (1932)
BACKGROUND:

  • The story was inspired by tales from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic short story collection “In a Glass Darkly,” the most important of which is “Carmilla” (a vampire tale with lesbian undertones).
  • Vampyr was produced in three versions: one with the cast speaking English, one in French, and one in German. Complete prints of the English and French versions no longer exist, although parts were used in restoring the German version. Some say the English version was never completed. Filming the same script in multiple languages was a trend at the time—see also the Spanish-language version of Dracula—although this practice was soon abandoned as too costly.
  • Star “Julian West” is actually Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who funded the production in exchange for the leading role. Gunzburg used a pseudonym to avoid the embarrassment that would result from having an actor in his Russian expatriate noble family.
  • Vampyr was shot through a layer of gauze positioned in front of the camera to create the soft, dreamlike visuals.
  • The film was booed at its premiere in Berlin, and in Vienna crowds rioted, demanding their money back. Vampyr lost money and at the time was seen as an embarrassment in its distinguished director’s career, although now it is regarded with near universal acclaim.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The translucent astral body of our protagonist, peering down at his doppelganger as it lies in a coffin.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nearly irrational, mood-based horror gem with imagery that verges on the surreal, Vampyr is a grim and restless death parable made in the brief age when the melodramatic structures of silent films were slowly being fleshed out with the new colors and textures afforded by sound. This experiment in terror by a master filmmaker, made in a unique period that cannot be recreated, is an artifact of its time that paradoxically seems all the more universal because of the age-bound specificity of its style.


Clip from Vampyr (1932)

COMMENTS: “It was an eerie moonlit night. Lights and shadows, voices and faces seemed to take on hidden meaning,” informs one of Vampyr‘s early intertitles. It gives us a brief inventory of Vampyr‘s major tricks and totems: shadows, and hidden meanings.  From the first glimpse of a mysterious peasant bearing a scythe to the rotating skull on the doctor’s shelf, Vampyr is full of portentous images that exert a dreamlike fascination. Like the most troubled dreams, Vampyr does not yield its hidden meanings easily; they are indirect, uneasy, and fearsome.

Vampyr‘s cinematography is famous for its use of soft focus, created by filming through a piece of gauze held three feet in front of the camera. But, for a movie that presumably takes place over a single endless night, it is just as notable for the unexpected brilliance of the moonlit mise en scene. Vampyr‘s bright, blurry eternal midnight is illuminated by what must be a historic full moon, a never-seen but ever-present celestial lamp that casts momentous shadows everywhere. The landscape glows. It is as if day and night have been reversed, a perfect metaphor for the backwards world of Vampyr, whose theme is the inversion of life and death, light and dark. The old man who visits Allen Gray in his locked room as he sleeps, starting off his long night of terror, glows like a ghost, and one of his first intrusive acts is to raise the window shade and let light stream into the room. The blinding moonlight is necessary to cast the enormous shadows Gray spies in the nearby ruins: a gravedigger, a rifleman, an entire party of revelers and musicians. The camera, as it twirls, is careful to never reveal the corporeal substance behind these shadows, except for one scene where, through careful use of camera angles, a soldier and his shadow seem to move independently of each other. It is significant that our protagonist is “Gray,” a transitional name; for he is trapped in an eternal night that refuses to recede into blackness, like the vampire who inhabits the interstice between life and death.

As Vampyr lives halfway between life and death, light and shadow, it is also halfway between a silent movie and a talkie. Originally conceived of as a silent, it was converted into a sound production as the project advanced into the Thirties. Many of the old silent habits remained, most notably in the use of decorative intertitles to supply exposition in the place of dialogue or narration. The sound was all recorded separately on a soundstage after the filming wrapped, with actors dubbing in the dialogue (in three different languages) and human foley artists providing all the sounds (including squawking parrots). As in silent films, the musical accompaniment is key for establishing the mood: in this case, an eerie, grossly Romantic classical score by Wolfgang Zeller (sadly not available for purchase today). Characters seldom speak; they are accustomed to the still, quiet rhythms of the silent world. As in other transitional talkies like White Zombie, the spare soundscape makes the noises we do hear—the tapping on a window, the crack of a rifle—leap out of the background like a shadow thrown on the wall. As opposed to the constant babble of contemporary films, these people only speak when they have something to say, which makes us pay more attention to them. Every precious word is spoken with deliberation and is imbued with significance and meaning. The lack of dialogue also mimics the language of dreams, where words are subordinate to images, and silence is only broken when absolutely necessary.

All of this spareness—the long quiet spaces, the ghostly shadows on a rustic moonlit nights—fleshes out an abstract skeleton of a narrative. The vampire story takes a while to get started; it is subject to preliminary hallucinations which are more significant than the surface plot. We see unexplained flashes of images: the shadow of the country ferryman bearing his scythe, a cross between Charon and the Grim Reaper; the silhouette of a cherubic weather vane outlined against the glowing night sky. As in a dream, nothing here happens if it does not absolutely need to; no time is wasted on plausibility, on establishing logical connections between things. An old man comes to Gray in his locked room, for no reason except to set the story in motion. When Gray worms his way into the chateau, the family immediately accepts this wanderer as a fellow traveler, without a word of introduction. And why not? Gray proves immediately willing to donate his own blood to the sickly daughter, a stranger to him. Gray’s character is blank, almost undefined; mostly an observer, drawn along from scene to scene as an unwilling witness to the secret horrors of Courtempierre. He exists in the passivity of a nightmare, stripped of agency, unable to effect the events around him. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the movie’s most famous sequence, when Gray dreams of his own burial; paralyzed, he sees himself borne to the graveyard, his dead eyes watching the proceedings through a glass panel in the coffin lid thoughtfully supplied by the undertaker for his convenience.

We know little about Gray except what we are told in the introduction: he is a student of the occult and “a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred.” Watching Vampyr, his fate becomes ours. The movie traps us in a gray limbo, the netherworld of the vampire. What film better sinks us into the mysteries of death than Vampyr?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dread and obsession are the film’s substance, and its mood is evocative, dreamy, spectral.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

Vampyr is uncanny not because of its subject matter, but because of its utter strangeness as film.”–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice (DVD)

“…fleshes out the barest bones of vampirological convention with all manner of uncanny oddities and in-camera trompe l’oeil more at home in the surrealist experiments of Dalí, Bunuel and Cocteau than in the pages of Victoriana… a triumph of the irrational, Dreyer’s eerie memento mori never allows either protagonist or viewer fully to wake up from its surreal nightmare.”–Anton Bitel, Film 4

IMDB LINK: Vampyr (1932)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Vampyr (1932) – Overview – TCM.com – Turner Classic Movies’ Vampyr page hosts three clips and an essay along with the usual data

Vampyr’s Ghosts and Demons – The Criterion Collection – A very thorough background of the film by Mark Le Fanu, including hints of a possible autobiographical interpretation

Vampyr at Internet Archive – Available in two versions. The linked version is complete, unrestored German edition (with no subtitles); also available is a shortened cut titled Castle of Doom, with English-language narration, which played the American market. Both prints are very poor.

Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) – Alfred Eaker’s essay on the film for this site

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Vampyr (BFI Film Classics) – David Rudkin’s monograph for the British Film Institute

DVD INFO: For many years, Vampyr was only available in incomplete, poor quality public domain prints, including a 60-minute alternate cut with English-language narration that went under the title Castle of Doom. All of that changed in 2008 with the Criterion Collection’s luminous 2-disc release of the 1998 restored version (buy), which is now the only edition worth considering (at least in North America). Extra features include commentary from film scholar Tony Rayns, a 30 minute documentary from 1966 featuring Dreyer speaking about his films, more interviews with the director (both audio and audiovisual), and a short piece on he film’s visual influences. The set also comes with Criterion’s traditional booklet of essays, and first-edition copies even included Sheridan Le Fanu’s complete short story “Carmilla.”

As mentioned above, inferior public domain prints of Vampyr can be downloaded from the Internet Archive for free.

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