Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1932 vampire film is only the third of its kind, though saying this is like anything else is a bit of a stretch. It’s closer to Nosferatu than Dracula (31), sure, but this film is so ephemeral as to almost not exist. If you read the supplementary materials and watch the visual essay included in the Criterion edition, you’ll discover that there were 3 versions of the film (in French, English, and German), one of which was lost forever (English) while the others are edited together for the restoration, and that the literary “source” of the film, le Fanu’s “Carmilla” is only vaguely referenced in the larger plot of the film. This haziness in the film’s origins extends to its visuals and story. If you told me I made up a creepy old man that appears at the inn at the beginning of the movie I’d probably believe you, since he doesn’t show up again and doesn’t seem to have any importance for either the story or the thematic elements.
The movie looks like it might disappear at any moment, too, following the creepy old man as he exits the picture. It’s always foggy any time the characters venture outside, and indoors the geography of the old mansion where much of the film takes place seems both out of whack and disconnected. Dreyer’s camera is almost constantly moving and it is exhilarating, especially during the film’s opening and closing 15 minutes. You never know what it’ll show you, and soon even benign shadows take on a malevolent malleability. For one of the few times while watching a horror film, I was actually afraid that what I was seeing might be revealed to be some dangerous other thing.
The first 15 minutes of this movie are a straight masterpiece of surreal horror filmmaking. From the eerie guy with a sickle to the strange inhabitants of the riverside inn to the walk through a nightmarish factory that seems to be the vampire’s lair, the film drips with menace and style. It’s also clever as hell. With just lighting and editing, Dreyer creates some fantastic images that equally delight and terrify. My favorite in the early goings is the shadow that prances along the river, but only in the water’s reflection. This is the introduction of the sourceless shadow trick that Dreyer gets the most out of in the first part of the film and I loved every iteration. In the back section, he relies on a different technique to get a totally different rise out of the audience: an extended POV shot of a presumably dead man getting screwed into his coffin (with a convenient glass window for his face!) and then carried to a graveyard. It’s a deeply unsettling setup and while it lasts maybe a bit too long, I can’t impugn something so remarkable and new (I had seen a version of this shot before, kinda, in Borzage’s A Farewell To Arms, one of the few great moments of that film). The vampire’s henchman also gets a glorious sendoff that will stick with me for some time.
The beginning and end of this movie are so spectacular that it is a pretty big disappointment when the middle is so unremarkable. Perhaps it’s because the middle contains the most of the typical vampyric stuff that, I understand, wasn’t so typical at the time. It’s one of those things where something new becomes so important to a genre or style of movie that it loses some of its impact on later viewers. But there’s also a noticeable drop-off in cleverness that sets in during the middle 40 minutes or so. The only thing that really stands out from this is the beguiling and seductive look that lights up the young female vampire’s face when she tries to lure her even younger sister in for a bite. The movie is sexy, to a degree, and it is also remarkable for having no male vampires on screen. For one of the few times, especially in early horror, it’s all about the women. Coming off of the wonderful character study that is The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer uses his formidable talents with framing and lighting the young woman’s face for maximum impact, and her performance matches his framing, even if it doesn’t make up as much of the film as it does in his previous attempt. It’s too bad everything around it feels perfunctory.
Vampyr is a movie that will not soon leave my mind. There’s a power to the opening and close of the film that will cement some of those images in my mind for a long while. There’s a whiff of missed opportunity here, given both the story and filmmaking boredom that sets in during the middle, but half of that can be explained away with the passage of time. Had I seen this movie when it first came out, or before I had seen dozens of other vampire movies, it probably would have impressed me more, at least I would lose that sense of over-familiarity. I think it still has plenty of merit, and is definitely necessary viewing for any fans of the gothic or film history or just great looking movies.