Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932
Starring: Julian West, Sybille Schmitz, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Jan Hieronimko
Based loosely on Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly (famous for the story, “Carmilla”), Dreyer’s powerful, if difficult film has taken a backseat to other vampire classics from the period, like Tod Browning’s Dracula and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, but it is a completely different sort of animal.
Allan Gray rents a room at an inn in the village of Courtempierre, but is awakened by an old man, who creeps into his room and leaves behind a small package with a note that it should be opened after his death. Gray finds his way to an old, possibly haunted castle and then a manor, where he witnesses, through a window, the old man being murdered. Servants let him into the house, but they are all too late to save the old man. Gray is invited to stay the night and meets Giséle, the man’s daughter. Her sister, Léone, is very ill, but they see her walking outside and find her unconscious and with bite wounds. During the night, Gray opens the package, which contains a book about vampires. He reads it and learns that Léone is probably a vampire’s victim. He suspects that her doctor is under the vampire’s thrall. When the doctor tries to poison Léone and kidnaps Giséle, Gray goes after him, back to the haunted castle, where he has some very disturbing visions. He rescues Giséle and he and an old servant find the grave of the vampire and drive a stake through her heart, and then kill the doctor.
This French and German coproduction remained neglected for many years. Its initial release in Germany was marked by almost uniformly negative reactions, incredibly including a riot in Vienna. In later years it has fortunately been recognized as an important, evocative film, one that marks the triumph of style and technique over substance. The production underwent a number of challenges. This was Dreyer’s first sound film and had to be recorded in three languages, which resulted in the minimal dialogue and title cards. The cast is primarily non-professional, including lead actor Julian West, who bears an odd resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft. While West is not the most versatile actor, his dreamy, mesmerized performance suits the tone of the film.
West is actually the screen name for Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, a banker, socialite, magazine editor and fashion icon. Gunzberg had a fascinating life story and his involvement in Vampyr is simply another chapter of a long and interesting life. A French nobleman, Gunzburg was part of the scene in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s, where he become known for his elaborate parties. Here he met Dreyer and helped finance and starred in Vampyr. In the ‘30s he sought refuge in New York City, where he found work as an editor at home and fashion magazines like Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, where he became senior fashion editor. His sense of style and inimitable personality influenced major designers like Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein. Another notable personality to appear in the film is troubled German actress Sybille Schmitz (Diary of a Lost Girl), whose life of drug and alcohol abuse, depression, suicide attempts and ultimately her suicide is the basis for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss.
With little dialogue, no strict narrative structure and purposefully washed out cinematography, this is one of Dreyer’s more subversive films and is one of the most original early attempts at horror. Everything works to make the film surreal, eerie and disorienting. There is little sex or violence, but Vampyr is one of the few films that still has the power to make me uneasy. The film is steeped in hysteria and many of its plot elements would still work if the vampire aspect was replaced with domestic abuse. Though Gray is the protagonist, the film has always been about the sisters for me. Léone is ill, but it is psychological as well as physical. She longs for death. Images of her face, before we think she is about to die, are similar to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Léone’s suffering and endurance makes her pale, crazed face appear on the edge of martyrdom. Her sister, the depressed, anxious Giséle, is ultimately kidnapped and left tied up. Though the monster in this film is a female vampire (surprisingly aged), the real villain is the abusive, manipulative doctor.
The real power of Vampyr is the power of suggestion. The film is mostly made up of dreams, visions and impressions. Both Gray and the audience are unsure what is happening, though the sense of dread is palpable. Gray’s vision of his own death and burial is one of the most claustrophobic, disturbing scenes in the film. It is also one of the most confusing and sums up why this film will be difficult for many viewers. Like the later works of Jean Rollin, Vampyr is concerned with mood rather than plot. Shadows, reflections and mirror images work to dizzy and confuse us. Gray, the protagonist we loosely identify with, is also oddly framed in the film, suggesting he is viewing another world.
After languishing in obscurity for years, there are finally two wonderful DVD releases. First and foremost is the excellent Criterion double-disc set. The restored print is still grainy and aged, but it is the best available so far and has new, improved English subtitles. There are also a ton of extras, including a commentary from film scholar Tony Rayns, a documentary, Carl Th. Dreyer, from Jørgen Roos, a visual essay from scholar Casper Tybjerg about Dreyer’s influences and a radio broadcast with Dreyer. An impressive booklet includes essays from Mark Le Fanu, writer Kim Newman, and print restorer Martin Koerber. There is also an interview with producer and star Nicolas de Gunzburg, a copy of Dreyer and Christen Jul’s original screenplay and a copy of Sheridan Le Fanu story “Carmilla.”
Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label also released a special edition DVD. The restored print is not as cleaned up as the Criterion, but this version includes new special features. In addition to the Tony Rayns commentary, there is one from director Guillermo del Toro, deleted scenes, and a documentary, The Baron, about Nicolas de Gunzburg. The Dreyer documentary from Jøgen Roos and Casper Tyberg’s visual essay are also included. The booklet contains a partial reproduction of the original Danish film program, an essay on Dreyer from Jean and Dale Drum, another essay from Tom Milne, and the restoration notes from Martin Koerber.
I own the lovely Criterion set, but it is difficult to say which release is superior. The Criterion print is better, but the Eureka special features are more extensive. Collectors should buy both.
I recently saw Vampyr screened in Philadelphia at PhilaMOCA, accompanied by a textured, brooding, synth-driven live score from Steven Severin. The subtle, occasionally droning score is a perfect accompaniment to Dreyer’s dreamy, disturbing film. It’s one of those scores that becomes part of the film and you simply forget that you’re listening to something composed well after the film’s production. There are lighter moments with reoccurring bells and jarring sections that reflect music being played or listened to by characters in the film. Severin also uses silence to his advantage, eschewing everything about the classically-driven original score meant to mimic the scores of silent horror films like Nosferatu. Severin has spent part of 2012 touring with his Vampyr score in the U.K. and the East and West coasts of the U.S. Check out the score here.
Severin got his start as the bassist and co-founder of Siouxsie and the Banshees, but went on to work with The Cure’s Robert Smith in their side project The Glove, and also with Marc Almond, Lydia Lunch, The Tiger Lillies, etc. In recent years, he began his own label, RE, has produced a number of solo albums, and has been writing scores for a number of unusual films, including Visions of Ecstasy (Nigel Wingrove, 1989), London Voodoo (Robert Pratten, 2003), The Purifiers (Richard Jobson, 2004), Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman (Matthew Mishory, 2009), Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau, 1930), The Seashell and the Clergyman (Germaine Dulac, 1928, based on a script by Antonin Artaud) and more. Severin has also written a number of theatrical scores, such as Maldoror (for a Brazilian adaptation of Lautremont’s Les Chants de Maldoror) and Women in the Dunes (which features The Swans’ Jarboe). Visit his site to learn more.