Judge Krystyn Munsyn thynks 'y's make everythyng seem spookyr.
"The blood! The blood!"
It was nearly ten years after The Passion of Joan of Arc before Carl Dreyer made another film and by then the medium had leapt into that terrifying unknown abyss of the talking picture. The director isn't completely at home with the genre or the method, instead relying on avant-garde techniques to carry the piece. The result is a movie that is vague, frustrating, and at times nonsensical—light on story and heavy on atmosphere—but viewers willing to make an effort will find that Vampyr's veins run deep.
Facts of the Case
Allan Gary is a dreamer, fascinated by the occult, newly arrived in the town of Courtempierre. When a strange man enters his room that night with the cryptic warning "She must not die" and a package to be opened upon his death, Gray finds himself in a twilight world surrounded by the very things that fascinate him.
The first time I finished watching Vampyr I was left with a profound sense of disappointment and confusion. This was a classic? This was art? Was I just too stupid to get it?
Apparently I'm not the only one affected in this way: at one of the original screenings, the audience became so disgruntled they had to be subdued with nightsticks.
Viewers going in expecting a ghostly Gothic tale of vampires, spirits and living burial will instead find themselves in fog-shrouded realm of shadows without form, an ethereal fever-dream that dissolves the faster you try to grasp its meaning. Unlike the supernatural films of Tod Browning or James Whale, where any subtext is secondary to the plot, Vampyr's whole story is the symbolism and subtext. The characters are pale shades going through the motions of an anemic narrative with Dreyer layering imagery and light in way that very nearly renders the movie all murk and no might.
Vampyr is directed in a way that is intentionally disconcerting. Characters talking to the far right of the screen are inter-cut with listeners standing at the far left, major events are filmed from odd perspectives, and every interior is laid out like a labyrinth. Watching for the first time you never know where characters are, how things are happening or what is going on. Is this reality, fantasy, or afterlife? The disorientation only heightens the otherworldliness of Gray's situation but it doesn't do the story any favors.
The eeriness is magnified by the vast expanses of silence that dominate the film. The movie was actually recorded silent, with all sound added in post-production. Dreyer planned at the outset for there to be French, German and English versions of Vampyr, with the actors performing their lines in all three languages so the appropriate lip movements could be inserted into each print. Because of this, dialogue is kept to a bare minimum and most of the emotional heavy lifting is carried out by the score, a feat Wolfgang Zeller handles amazingly. The chilling finale contains little language, no blood and no violence save for the merciless grind of the score intruding on the pastoral quiet. It's brilliantly effective.
Vampyr is the kind of film that needs to be pinned to a board and pulled apart to see what makes it tick before being reconstructed, hopefully without too many left over parts. Every viewing reveals something new, lending itself to a veritable bloodbath of meanings and the more I watch the more I find myself in its thrall. Is what we're seeing actually happening or is it all a product of Gray's imagination? Have we ever left his hotel room or has everything been a dream? Perhaps Courtempierre is really a misty purgatory, the scythe-wielding farmer subbing for the Grim Reaper. Regardless of what you think, the film still needs to be dissected, vivisected, and disemboweled before it will spill its secrets.
Unfortunately, even after Criterion's meticulous restoration the print still looks like it's taken a beating, with a good deal of flicker, debris, and discoloration throughout. While the clarity of the mono soundtrack is surprising, several words of the already sparse dialogue remain strangely un-subtitled. There's also two scene differences between the German and the French cuts of the film and rather than make them a standalone feature, the missing footage is buried in the included visual essay. Here's the confusing part: one scene plays in full (in an unrestored state) so you can see the sequence as Dreyer originally intended, but the other is shown in clips, and those clips appear to match what's in the main feature. No explanation is provided in the Criterion material.
Luckily the extras on the two-disc set are almost meaty enough to make me forgive the feature's technical flaws. There's the essay itself—a video lecture that explores the historical, literary and visual inspirations for Vampyr—and the commentary by Tony Rayns. Rayns sometimes annoyed me with his tendency to put off talking about certain elements and then forgetting to address them, but overall his track is a balanced perspective, and he's not so snobby he can't point out flaws, bring up Buffy or admit to not understanding a thing the first time he saw it. Suddenly, I don't feel so ignorant.
Along with the slim booklet of essays is a lovely fat book containing the original screenplay, complete with restored passages, and the 90 page short story credited with inspiring the film. A straightforward little Gothic, "Carmilla" is by now an obvious and clichéd vampire tale but it's an interesting read, if only for the heavy lesbian undertones. The package is rounded out by a '60s doc on Dreyer and a recording of the director reading an essay of his own.
If you go into Vampyr looking for inert entertainment you're bound for nothing but frustration; Dreyer punishes you for watching without a critical eye and whether your experience is deep as a tomb or shallow as a grave is entirely up to you. The DVD is far from perfect, the print is rough, the final execution iffy, but if you're willing to accept that, Criterion provides a lot for the film buff to feast upon.
While the final product is nothing Dreyer or Criterion should stake their reputation on, they're still free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns
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