There’s a new 4K version of Carl Dreyer’s 1932 horror classic doing the rounds in UK cinemas right now, but since nobody bothered to offer me access to it, I thought I’d check out one of the various versions of this film which can be streamed at home. At 90 years old, it’s impressive that Vampyr is watchable in 2022 at all; most 1930’s films lack the visual fluency of the silent era, and feel pretty inert by today’s standards. There’s a few good reasons, however, why Vampyr is a landmark in cinema history, and even in an imperfect viewing, it’s still one creepy trip.
Carl Dreyer’s film is probably best known for the foggy quality of the film, print and narrative; there’s more fog in this film than in John Carpenter’s The Fog, and that’s a whole lotta fog. Dreyer even shot through gauze to create the murky quality of the images; the story told is deliberately unclear. Allan Gray, or possibly David Gray depending on the print you see, checks into what might be an inn in the Courtempierre area of Northern France. A mysterious man enters his room and leaves an envelope, to be opened only in the event of his death. Gray experiences a number of dreamlike visions before seeing the same man shot; the letter reveals that the area is infested by vampires, and Gray has to move fast to protect two sisters from the horrid vampires who prey on them.
Vampyr’s strange visuals disguise a reasonably straightforward whodunit; we’re trying to figure out who is in league with the vampires, and it’s not hard to guess. There’s two striking set pieces; a dream sequence in which Gray imagines himself buried alive in a coffin with a glass viewing panel, and a denouement in a flour mill which has a certain hypnotic appeal. But Vampyr is still a consistently engaging and unnerving film to watch, with lapses of logic, garbled sound in several languages, marks on the film, mind-bending edits and a general impenetrability that’s cast a murky pall over viewers for nearly a century.
Nicolas de Gunzburg plays Allan or David Gray under the name Julian West; he was one of the film’s financiers, and contributes a remarkably stiff presence, never loosening his tie’s top knot even when confronted with the rising undead. With subtitles that don’t match the German dialogue, and inter-titles juxtaposed over other inter-titles that they don’t resemble at all, Vampyr is an inscrutable film that somehow gains from such poor presentation. I daresay I’ll see the restoration one day, if the fates allow, but for now, the many scrambled iterations that haunt the internet still create the right frisson of mist and mystery.