Vampyr October 21, 2016
Try to make sense of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr and you’ll find yourself spinning in circles — this is a horror movie best looked at as an exercise in style, not a comprehensible adrenaline-inducer featuring much that would characterize it as a quote-unquote vampire movie. Vampires are involved in the plot, sure. But because the film reads as a cinematic fever dream to disarm the eyes and not the senses, it’s more reasonable to be hypnotized by its images than attempt to keep up with the characters Dreyer barely sketches.
Eighty-four years later and Vampyr is widely regarded as being one of the finest horror movies ever made and a pivotal point in the career of Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc). But from the critical and commercial standpoint of 1932, the film was a failure, an unlikable enchilada of blurry photography and dull nonsensicality. Since cinephiles of today are better equipped to appreciate the technical achievements of game-changing auteurs, Vampyr’s interpretive renaissance only makes sense. But perhaps those close-minded ticket-buyers of nearly a century ago were slightly unerring in their disfavor of the movie’s indirectness — while I’m in awe of Dreyer’s cinematographic innovations and his masterful control over the film’s hallucinatory atmosphere, there’s no denying that its ephemerality makes it a fantasy pressed to successfully put us under its spell.
It puts on a front of having a storyline for the sake of appeasing the most difficult of a viewer, but I see Vampyr as using characters and their motivations as markers to stitch the celluloid together to keep it from floating away. The film, more or less, revolves around Allan Gray (Nicholas de Gunzburg), a young occultist whose view of the world, as the movie puts it, blurs the real and the unreal. His wandering nature thus leads him to the village of Courtempierre, a secluded region in north-central France. Gray doesn’t plan to stay long — he’s simply renting a room for the night — but after being awakened in the early hours of the morning by a strange man who appears to be in a trance (he even leaves a letter that’s supposedly only to be opened in the event of his death), his stay gains in its meaning.
Especially when, after some investigation, Gray learns that the village, in actuality, is controlled by vampiric forces, with several of the town’s residents being dominated by the vindictive energy. As examinations deepen and revelations increase, Gray very well might find his life drastically altered in the process of his getting used to Courtempierre.
A lot of those descriptions, though, stem from a great deal of inferring and speculation. While watching Vampyr, I was not so much caught up in the logistics of the plot (if there are any) as I was taken aback by Dreyer’s torrent of stunning imagery, all gorgeously realized (his utilization of the soft focus lens is a brilliant touch) and all luscious in their nightmarish disconcertion. The film’s more inclined to evoke artistic intoxication than a night’s worth of spine chills, however, and our reaction to it is more comprised of admiration than emotional investment.
Which is precisely the problem I have with Vampyr: Though unquestionably ravishing and unprecedented in its experimentations, Dreyer always keeps us at an arm’s length, never to erase our surroundings and draw us into the world he’s so methodically created. And in the wake of the incredibly affecting The Passion of Joan of Arc, paling in comparison is inevitable. But much of Vampyr is extraordinary; this is filmmaking at its most daring and peerless. B