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‘…still a consistently engaging and unnerving film to watch…’

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.


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  1. This is the film Dryer made after Passion of Joan of Arc (which is maybe one of the purest cinematic films ever made?)
    I think Vampyr is quite a political film, albeit not as overt as his later masterpiece Day of Wrath.
    The scene where he ends up lured and then imprisoned in the coffin is so clever and unsettling.
    Haven’t seen the film for a while now, probably a good time to get a refresh on it.

    • I’m curious to see the 4K, and what it does to a movie that I’m used to seeing in a battered state; I’d thought the original negative was lost. I get the impression Dreyer wanted to do something more commercial and fun (!?) than Joan of Arc, and this is him in a more frivolous mode. But the revelation of the dr’s guilt, and the general feel of anxiety and suspicio may, as you say, point to a more political meaning…

      • I found watching Coppola’s Dracula movie helped because it seems to make a bit more clear some of things Vampyr is doing (because I think it copies/homages some things from Vampyr).

        • I’m fond of Coppola’s film, for that exact reason; it’s a compilation of lifts from silent movies, but that works as a way of making the story pop. I do find some of the plot development a bit old fashioned, every character seems to have 20 mins each, but in a way, it replicated the old-school plotting of old movies…

  2. This is one film from the 1930s I haven’t managed to watch. It sounds like a good one – I feel like I ran it across when I was researching 1931’s Dracula with Lugosi, but I never sat down and watched it. Sounds like it’s worth a look!

    • Oh, this is really one that makes for an easy watch; short and cinematic. It’s aiming to be cryptic, and certaibnly gets there; a better film than Dracula because there’s little dialogue and lots of tricks and atmosphere. Get it on your list!

  3. This is a movie that grows on me all the time. You mention the set piece scenes but there’s lots of other good stuff. The grim reaper at the beginning, the shadow play, that blood-draining scene where the doctor jokes about how the blood is in the other room.

    Not sure a 4K restoration is going to mean much given how murky it was meant to look, but people get excited about these things. Criterion put out a version that looked fine.

    • Part of me fears that the 4K restoration, by blowing away the fog and the cobwebs, won’t have the same magic; I’ve seen this a few times over the years, and it is like a dream that you can’t quite explain. As you say, there’s more to this that the famous set-pieces, and there’s a Lynch-like feels about some of these cuts and juxtapositions. It says something for the film that I could happily watch this last night knowing that another version is coming down the chute, and I’ll still be willing to take another look…I guess that’s repeat business…

  4. The Movie Elite are keeping you down, man. Time to protest and riot! Maybe burn a few bins. I’d try to figure out a way to play this movie during the riot, just to show the righteousness of your cause. I guess you’re going to need a projector, a stone wall, and very long extension cord.

    • You are so right, if there’s any area that will allow me to whip up a public outcry and shock the authorities, it my lack of access to Carl Dreyer’s 1930’s output; it’s a breach of my human rights not to see this in 4K. And don’t laugh, you could be next! How would you feel if, for example, you didn;t have access to blu-ray access to Carl Dreyer’s 1964 masterpiece Gertrud? You wouldn’t be laughing then, eh?

      • I am appalled, just appalled, that such things can happen in a civilized country in this day and age. I shall write my congressman on your behalf and we shall invade the UK and start handing out 4K movies to everyone.

        I don’t think 4K does anything for me though because my tv isn’t that good. AND there’s another reason to riot and loot. I need a better tv!

        • Just go out and steal one, and when the cops come round, tell them they’re politically motivated, and raise more money to defend yourself as a victim of a witch hunt.

          In all seriousness, who needs 4K? That’s good enough for a cinema screen, not yer telly in your hoose. 1080p is as much as anyone needs. From all accounts, the original negative for this film doesn’t exist anyway, so the point is probably moot.

  5. Vampyr in 4K, that’s good news ! 

    You’re so right when you write that the film can be watched today easily. The mobile caméra of Dreyer keeps the fluency of the mute period, and the surrealistic influences are spreading on all the frames and every inch of the script. You have probably noticed the name of Rudy Maté as the cinematographer, another good point for Vampyr.

    • I will go back and review the 4K at some point, but it is truly remarkable that even in prints that look like they were booted around the projection room floor, Vampyr still works. It’s a surreal, dream-like film with lots of whip-pans, camera moves and a mad, unpredictable atmosphere that’s decades ahead of it’s time.

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