I love October. Halloween is my favorite holiday and the movie selections available this month are enough to make my hard drive beg for mercy. Turner Classic Movies, always one of my favorite networks for frightful films, has really been knocking them out of the park this year.
Among the classics they’ve been showing is the 1932 movie Vampyr by director Carl Dreyer. Produced in German and French, this movie is known for its heavy atmosphere and creative filming tricks that create an eerie dreamlike quality. The original masters of the film were lost long ago, resulting in poor quality and heavily edited versions being released. But new restoration techniques have done wonders and in 2008 the Criterion Collection released a two-disc edition of the complete German version of the film.
The story of Vampyr is a straight-forward affair. Allan Gray is a student of the occult who happens upon the village of Courtempierre where he seeks lodging for the night. He wakes before dawn to find a strange and disturbed nobleman in his room. The man urgently tells him that, “she must not die,” then leaves him a sealed package with the instructions to open it upon the event of his death. He then leaves.
Gray exits the inn and has a series of ghostly encounters, including entering a coffin maker’s shop where he sees spirits on the walls, a one legged guard whose shadow can leave him, a mysterious doctor, and a strange old crone. Once back outside he is lead by more spirits to the manor of the man who had visited him during the night, where he witnesses the guard’s shadow shoot the man. Gray, now enmeshed in the story of the family, meets the staff and the deceased man’s two daughters, one of whom is under the curse of a vampire.
The story itself is a straight forward and good, if predictable, affair. Events unfold in front of our protagonist rather than as a result of his actions and the final resolution is handed to the characters through the book contained in the package left by the deceased father, a book that Gray is repeatedly interrupted while reading. In truth, the plot of Vampyr is unremarkable.
What is remarkable is the atmosphere Dreyer conjurers. He makes great use of shadows, including scenes where the silhouettes of musicians and dancers are seen on the wall though the camera has panned over an empty room. Shadows lead Gray from one strange encounter to another, as if the spirits of those claimed by the vampire and her minions are seeking revenge. Shadows also offer menace through the one-legged guard, who uses his shadow to assassinate the nobleman’s father.
Dreyer also used tricks like double exposures to create other spectral effects, such as a girl dancing along the shore, seen only as a reflection in the river beneath an empty riverbank, or the vengeful spirit of the murdered father coming back for the vampire’s henchmen. The biggest use of these tricks is an extended scene where Gray leaves his body, his astral form seeing a mix of the villains’ current actions and a dream of his own body being placed in a coffin and carried to the graveyard. The coffin has a glass pane over the corpse’s face and we see much of the scene as if we were lying in the casket, looking up at the passing trees and looming church steeple.
There are plenty of ideas to inspire gamers. The movie focuses more on the vampire’s henchmen, who seem to be less dominated by magic than by the allure of evil. This gives them more agency than a character like Dracula’s Renfield. The shadow spirits, leading the investigator on, but whose motives are unclear is also a good trope, as is the guard’s use of his shadow as an agent for murder. And while the use of the book is one of the weaknesses of the plot, the information gleaned from it is both a good dose of vampire lore and an example of the value of a good investigation skill.
Though it lacks the horror of Nosferatu, the dreamlike quality of Vampyr is sure to please, making it a must-see for fans of early cinema and classic monster films.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Dreyer also directed the masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, another film no fan of early cinema should miss.