DirectorCarl Theodor Dreyer
Release Date(s)1932 (October 3, 2017)
Studio(s)Tobis Filmkunst/Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH/Danish Film Institute (Criterion – Spine #437)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A
(The film portion of this review is by Dr. Adam Jahnke. The disc review portion is by Tim Salmons.)
Whenever horror filmmakers are interviewed, they’ll invariably talk about the importance of shadow and mood and how much scarier things are if you leave things up to the viewer’s imagination. Almost nobody says, “Yeah, things are so much scarier if you coat the entire set with blood and linger over the axe sinking into the victim’s flesh,” despite the fact that most modern horror directors do just that. There’s a tendency to point to the classic horror films of the silent era up through the 40s as exemplars of this type of storytelling. But while most of these movies are still undeniably entertaining, relatively few are still able to raise the gooseflesh of a modern audience. One of the few that has kept most of its unsettling power is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr.
Vampyr tells the dreamlike story of Allen Grey (played by the film’s financial baker Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg using the pseudonym “Julian West”), a seeker of the fantastique who stumbles upon a small, quiet village. He receives a midnight visit from an old man who fears for his daughter’s life. The man leaves him a package to be opened in the event of his death. Grey investigates further and learns that the girl is the victim of a vampire, Margureite Chopin, who uses the village doctor to do her bidding.
For a film made at the dawn of the sound era, Vampyr feels surprisingly modern. Dreyer uses dialogue sparingly, so we are spared the broad emoting so typical of early sound film. Also forward thinking is the moody, active camerawork of cinematographer Rudolph Maté. The camera glides through the sets in unexpected ways, pulling back when you expect it to push forward, panning left or right when you expect it to stay still. Dreyer and Maté choose odd, disconcerting camera angles, framing both familiar and unfamiliar objects in ways that make you question what you’re looking at. Perhaps the film’s most famous sequence is when Grey imagines himself buried alive, told primarily through the use of a subjective camera in the coffin itself.
Despite the vampire and the premature burial, the film doesn’t rely on traditional scares or even, in many respects, traditional narrative techniques. Dreyer isn’t necessarily trying to scare the audience. Instead, he wants to unsettle the audience, to fill them with dread and unease. The vampire herself is something of a red herring. We are meant to be frightened just in general, not necessarily by the vampire and her minions specifically. The odd, ominous atmosphere is at times reminiscent of the films of David Lynch, who I’m willing to bet was influenced by this movie at some point.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray release of Vampyr is a welcome one, although it isn’t without its drawbacks. Unfortunately, the original camera negative no longer exists for the film and the only way to present it is by utilizing pieces of surviving German and French theatrical film prints. This process was carried out in 1998 in high definition by Cineteca di Bologna, and presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio. This transfer was also the basis of Criterion’s 2008 DVD presentation of the film. Many of the same faulty elements remain, including numerous density issues, scratches, and speckling. But, my motto is always “it’s better than nothing” when it comes to a surviving film. What can be done with this transfer has been done to improve it. It’s a slightly narrower presentation than was even present on the previous DVD. Leftover dirt, debris, and other types of damage have been cleaned up as much as possible. Despite the sometimes hazy and soft moments, the depth of the image still shines through, particularly the aforementioned live burial sequence. It’s a fairly stable image as well, with certain instances of obvious jitter. Normally I’d take more off of the final score for many of these deficiencies, but being that this is all that’s available to us, one has to cut it some major slack. It’s still a remarkable-looking film. The audio for it is presented in German mono LPCM. As far as how much clearer and more precise it is over the DVD release, I don’t hear much of a sonic difference. Like the visual component, it contains many of the same sort of imperfections, but forgivable under the circumstances. What little dialogue is present is perfectly audible, while the score carries the film through most of its passages. Some obvious transitional moments are present, but few and far between. It’s a beautiful transfer of a film that we should be ever thankful for still existing. English subtitles are also provided and are selected automatically when viewing the film.
One of the largest extras offered up on this release is an alternate English-text version of the film, presented with German mono Dolby Digital audio. Created by Criterion for their previous DVD release, it replaces the on-screen German text with English. It’s of lower quality, but preserved for completist’s sake. The rest of the extras are also carried over, including an audio commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns; the 1966 Carl Th. Dreyer documentary by Jørgen Roos; a visual essay on the film by Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg; a 1958 radio broadcast of an essay read aloud by Dreyer himself as part of an episode of film scholar Gideon Bachmann’s WBAI radio program The Film Art; an insert booklet featuring essays on the film, including “Vampyr’s Ghosts and Demons” by critic Mark Le Fanu, “Vampyr and the Vampire” by critic Kim Newman, “Some Notes on the Restoration of Dreyer’s Vamyr” by film documentarian Martin Koerber, and a 1964 interview by Herman G. Weinberg and Gretchen Weinberg with producer/actor Nicolas de Gunzburg; and last but not least, a paperback book featuring Dreyer and Christen Jul’s original screenplay and Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 story “Carmilla,” a source for the film. The latter is also now considered a Blu-ray exclusive, even though the first Criterion DVD printings included it as well.
Dreyer was hardly a prolific director anyway and he never made another film quite like Vampyr. It doesn’t seem to have a tremendously high reputation amongst horror fans, many of whom probably find it confusing and occasionally dull. However, there are images and sequences to be found here that rank among the eeriest ever put on film. Criterion’s lavish Blu-ray set presents this landmark in high style. Anyone with a serious interest in the complete history of horror cinema should have this on their shelf.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke and Tim Salmons