Vampyr, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, is not just a film: it is a visual poem. It is an elegy, a film of passion, one that makes constant contrast between the living and the dead, between reality and dreams. It is one of the most unsettling, tense, expressionistic, and downright creepy films that I have seen. It is filled, simultaneously, with beautiful and terrifying images, music, and cinematography that add a new dimension to the film and help it rise above other horror films.
Vampyr concerns itself with the story of a man named Allan Grey (Julian West). The film introduces Grey (who we learn through an opening title crawl has an interest in the supernatural, particularly vampires) drifting into the village of Courtempierre, looking for a place to stay. He soon receives more than he bargained for. At night, a frail old man (Maurice Schutz) wanders into his room and starts muttering, seemingly, nonsense. He mutters about “how she must not die.” The Old Man leaves a package on Grey’s table inscribed with the words “to be opened upon my death.” Grey decides to follow the man. When he steps outside, Grey starts to see shadows, shadows moving with a mind of their own, each doing a task. The shadows lead Grey to a castle. At the castle, he encounters more shadows, this time dancing. He also encounters a brooding, decked out in black old lady (Henriette Gerard) and a frazzled, bespectacled old man (Jan Hieronimko). Grey leaves and then encounters a manor, run by the old man from his room. Through more text, you learn the man lives there with his daughters and some servants. The Lord of the Manor is then shot. Grey alerts the servants and they rush to his body, but they are unable to save him. He opens the package left in his room and discovers that many of the people in the town are under the spell of a Vampyr, including one of the Lord’s daughters. Grey and a servant take it upon themselves to kill the Vampyr.
Cinematography adds a new facet to Vampyr; it is the most remarkable feature of the entire film. It gives the film its surreal, dreamlike effect, heightens the expressionistic acting, and produces some very unsettling images. It has an austere effect, the images generating a feeling of something sinister in the air- that something is right around the corner. The image of the man with the scythe ringing a bell is iconic but also unnerving. You don’t know the man’s intentions or if it foreshadows something, so you place the image in the back of your mind and wait to see if it is relevant later on. The most amazing scene in the film is when Grey has a vision of his dead body being buried. In his coffin, there is a piece of glass over his face and the camera adopts his point of view from inside the coffin. He sees the faces of those looking over him and the buildings above him. It is a reminder that man is mortal and that death awaits every man, the alarming part being the uncertainty of when and where it will occur. This scene heightens the dramatic tension of the film.
The score is another remarkable aspect of Vampyr. Music guides the audiences’ emotions and puts one on edge when the music foreshadows something horrific is to happen. The score ranges from soft and melodic to droning and screeching. Both the cinematography and music bring the surreal and dreamlike quality of the film to fruition.
As noted earlier, Vampyr often emphasizes the contrast between life and death and between reality and dreams. The film presents two realities, one of the living and one of the dead. The shadows that Grey saw and used as a guide to the castle are the reality of the dead. They are at the command of the Vampyr. In the scene in which the shadows are dancing with each other and music is played, the Vampyr walks in and yells “silence!”. You don’t hear any more cheerful music and dancing. Then there is the living, the world of Grey, the group the Vampyr wants to control. The Vampyr is desires power through bringing the living to its side. Yet The Vampyr isn’t typically what you think of when you think of vampires. It still drinks blood and lives in a coffin, but doesn’t look like Dracula. The Vampyr is meant to represent evil. As I remarked at the start of this review, Vampyr is a film of passion. Passion for life- and eternal life- at the destruction of others.
Taking off the rose-tinted glasses when regarding a classic film, it is possible to note certain flaws within the film. The first act of Vampyr is bewildering and difficult to follow due to the speed of its action and lack of answers to questions that quickly arise while viewing (the answers to these questions are later addressed, however). Additionally, there is perhaps a little bit too much characterization for select characters that is told through title cards rather than shown visually through the film. Thus, the plot feels stunted at certain instances and unable to develop naturally.
Criticism aside, Vampyr is haunting, austere, unsettling, and just plain creepy. Vampyr is, as Guillermo Del Toro has stated, “a meditation on life and death”, the film itself directly asserting this idea in a title card (“riddle of life and death”). Even eighty-five years after Vampyr was originally released in theaters, the film and its weighing of eternal themes continue to earn attention from audiences today.