Current Issue Sample

Fall Horror Harvest

Vampyr (1932)

Rating: 4 stars

D: Carl Theodor Dreyer. Julian West (Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg), Sybille Schmitz, Maurice Schutz. 72 mins. B&W. (Criterion Collection, 2-disc $39.95) 7/08

Dreyer's masterpiece of moody terror gets the four star treatment in a pricey but well worth it Criterion box set. Vampyr was, and remains, one of the most surreal and spooky films ever made. It won't make viewers jump, but it will, shall we say, creep its audience out. The film's atmosphere is dreamlike and otherworldly. Dreyer based his screenplay on In a Glass Darkly, a collection of five short stories by the great 19th-century Gothic novelist Sheridan Le Fanu. One of those stories, Carmilla, was filmed by Roger Vadim as 1960's Blood and Roses (VS #65) and by Hammer as The Vampire Lovers (1970). In Dreyer's film, young, handsome but expressionless Allan Gray (West) comes to an isolated Danish village that's under siege. The attacks are vampiric in nature, the perpetrator an evil old woman (Schmitz) who died decades earlier. Vampyr is the horror film elevated to a work of art. It's a quiet film; dialogue is sparse. Dreyer pulls his audience into a haunted netherworld through desolate settings and shadowy lighting. The film is absolutely chilling; it will hold you in its grip and make you feel like you're in the film, living Gray's life. On a superb commentary track, British film scholar Tony Rayns reveals that star West was actually a moneyed baron with no previous acting experience who financed the film in return for the lead role. Reportedly, he was professional and cooperative, even if he didn't have much in the way of acting chops. His continual blank expression reveals his lack of experience, yet for the purposes of this film, it works! His zombified stare helps to establish the film's haunted qualities. The baron never acted again but spent his life in Paris, writing for a variety of fashion magazines. Once a lost film, Vampyr was rescued when incomplete prints were found in Denmark and Germany. There was enough footage to piece the film back whole. Criterion's remastered, high-def print is taken from this restoration. Disc 1 features the entire film, subtitled, with Rayns' commentary, while Disc 2 offers a 1966 documentary on Dreyer, produced for Danish television. This superb doc, in Danish with subtitles, makes its Stateside debut thanks to Criterion. Danish film historian Casper Tybjerg contributes a "visual essay" on the films that inspired Dreyer to make Vampyr. This feels very much like a film studies class, except that the "teacher" is a rabid fan of the director and his work. Tybjerg's love and enthusiasm for his subject are infectious! Also included is a 1950s radio broadcast of Dreyer reading an essay and discussing his career. The box set comes with two paperback books. Writing Vampyr features Dreyer's screenplay, co-billed with Le Fanu's story Carmilla. The much thinner, pamphlet-sized Vampyr contains essays by noted historians on the film's impact and legacy. One of the writers is ironically named Mark Le Fanu. Great job!

~ David Alex Nahmod

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