Vampyr (1932)

Made at about the same time as Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), Vampyr is an entirely different kind of vampire film. It has a plot of sorts: Protagonist Allan Gray, spending the night at an inn in a French village, has a strange encounter with an old man who enters his room, utters a few, seemingly non-sequitur words, and exits as abruptly as he came in, leaving behind only a package, “to be opened after [his] death”. The old man’s household, it turns out, has been infested by a vampiric menace, and Gray has to save the man’s daughter from becoming the vampire’s next victim.

—Shadowy spoilers below (but not really)…—

Or does he? The film is preceded by a title card declaring the events to be Allan Gray’s “Phantasie-Erlebnis”: a fantasy experience, according to the subtitles. The entire film, but especially so everything after Gray first goes to bed, has a dreamlike quality to it. Director Carl Theodor Dreyer repeatedly violates the rules of continuity editing to create a disorienting, disquieting atmosphere. The poor quality of some of the surviving film elements, while surely not part of the director’s original intention, also contributes to that feeling.

The plot, such as it is, mostly consists of Gray wandering around and expressionlessly witnessing strange happenings (like dancing shadows cast by nothing). With a brief exception, his agency consists of reading a book, and of leaving the book on a table so it can be read by someone else. For the hero of a conventional story, he is very passive – indeed, the villains of the piece are vanquished by unseen forces helped by others (discounting a scene present on the DVD as an extra, but removed by Dreyer before the film’s premiere), but for someone experiencing a dream, such a “letting the story happen to you” attitude is not at all unusual. There are several dreams-within-the-dream which aren’t different from the tone of the rest of the film.

The aforementioned book conveniently contains not just all the vampire lore the viewer needs to know to understand the movie, it also contains precise instructions how to find and kill the very vampire stalking the old man’s family. Given that the book used to be in the old man’s possession, it’s strange that he’d have to leave it to Gray rather than act upon its instructions on his own. Again, that’s a rather strange piece of construction for a conventional story, but it becomes less weird when the entire experience is regarded as a dream, where the usual rules of verisimilitude and plausibility don’t apply. It’s no coincidence that the film ends with the light vanquishing the shadows, and Gray moving towards the dawn: he’s waking up.

Once you accept a certain amount of dream logic and let yourself be taken in by the film’s eery, sometimes surreal mood, it’s very enjoyable. If there’s one thing that detracts significantly from the experience it’s the dialogue. Vampyre was originally devised as a silent film, and a silent film (with music) it should have remained. There are a few sound effects, but they add little that couldn’t have been implied visually or with intertitles, and the spoken dialogue is rather trite and mostly poorly performed.

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