Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Screenplay: Christen Jul, Carl Theodor Dreyer
Based on a Book by: Sheridan Le Fanu
Starring: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Henriette Gérard
Country: Germany, France
Running Time: 74 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Carl Theodor Dreyer is a director who was active for a considerable length of time but didn’t make many feature films overall. Though often critically praised, his films rarely made any money, so it was always a struggle to finance the next project. He was stuck in a lawsuit with Société Générale de Films for a long while after The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928, which caused one of the first of these pauses.
Finally bringing Dreyer out of these few years in limbo was 1932’s Vampyr. It could be called a vanity project, as it was funded by Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, whose only provision was that he featured as an actor in the film (in fact playing the lead, credited as Julian West). However, this independent financing meant Dreyer was able to get full creative freedom over the project, which he hadn’t always been able to get elsewhere.
Despite being considered part of a seemingly commercial genre at the time (the Universal horror movies made a big splash in 1931), Vampyr made very little money on its release. It likely confounded audiences with its unusual, dreamlike plotting and the fact it was unlike any of Dreyer’s previous films. The director was famous for working tirelessly to establish a sense of realism in his films, whereas this is a nightmarish fantasy.
Vampyr didn’t get as much critical love as usual either. It was reportedly well received in the director’s native Denmark but, in Germany, screenings were met with boos and jeers. In the US, it wasn’t even commercially released, which is surprising, given the horror boom of the era.
Over time, Vampyr has developed a strong following though and is relatively well respected among Dreyer’s work, even if it’s not as universally praised as some of his other greats. It’s a film I must admit I’d not got around to yet (I’ve not seen nearly enough of Dreyer’s films, I’m ashamed to say), so I was thrilled to hear Eureka would be bringing Vampyr out on Blu-ray in the UK, in line with its 90th anniversary. Needless to say, I got hold of a copy and my thoughts follow.
Vampyr was adapted from a couple of short stories from the 1872 book ‘In a Glass Darkly’ by the Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. It sees our protagonist Allan Grey (West/Gunzburg) come across an inn, close to the village of Courtempierre, where he rents a room to stay the night. He’s awoken from his slumber, however, by a strange man (Maurice Schutz) who gives him a package marked “to be opened upon my death”.
Leaving the inn, Grey comes across some strange shadowy apparitions, who lead him to a castle where he meets some other mysterious people, including an old lady (Henriette Gérard) and a doctor (Jan Hieronimko).
Grey then wanders into a nearby manor where the man he saw at night, who turns out to be the Lord of the manor, is found dead. Grey is asked to stay the night as one of the Lord’s daughters, Léone (Sybille Schmitz), is gravely ill and her sister Gisèle (Rena Mandel) needs support. He also remembers a plea from the Lord to save his daughter.
Léone is later found wandering outside and has seemingly been bitten. Remembering the package the Lord gave to him the previous night, Grey opens it and discovers a book on vampire lore…
Though, on paper and in title, Dreyer’s film sounds like a cash-in on Todd Browning’s Dracula, production on Vampyr began in 1930, well before Todd Browning’s film was released. It didn’t come out until 1932 because the German distributors, Ufa, wanted to hold it back until after the American film was released.
Vampyr is a strange film too, very different to the classically told story of Dracula. Little is clear in Dreyer’s story. The frequently surreal scenes are often just cued up by a vague caption or later from excerpts from a book on vampires. As such, it’s often difficult to say whether what we are watching is a dream or reality. This idea is further bolstered by the intended German subtitle of Vampyr, ‘Der Traum des Allan Gray’, which translates as ‘The Dream of Allan Gray’.
This abstract, dream-like approach was a marked change for Dreyer, who was famous for his carefully authentic, austere dramas often working around religious themes. In his words, he states that “had I continued in that genre I would have been called the “saint’s director.” That would have been awful. So I chose Vampyr in order to do something exactly opposite. The film is a day-dream. I did not have a special purpose, I simply wanted to make a film that was different from all other films. I wanted – if you will – to break a new path for film.”
It was Dryer’s first sound film too. He reportedly disliked the format back then, which is part of the reason why there’s so little dialogue in it. Another more practical reason though might be the fact they were shooting three versions of the film as they went along, one with dialogue mouthed in English, another in German and another in French.
Dryer might not have liked the idea of making a film with synced sound, but he made the most of it. Eerie sound effects are well-utilised in appropriate moments, but more impressive is Wolfgang Zeller’s score. Like Dreyer’s direction and visual style, the music uses simple techniques and a relatively sparse approach to effectively unsettle the audience.
Visually it’s striking too. The film’s imagery was reportedly influenced by the work of Francisco Goya and other artists, and it looks stunning, making great use of movement, light, shadow and contrast. Dreyer and his DOP Rudolph Maté also came up with the unusual idea to hold a thin piece of material over the lens to create a bright but hazy atmosphere in the exterior sequences (though Baron de Gunzburg disputes this).
The film was shot fully on location, rather than on constructed sets. This saved money and relieved Dreyer from the pressure of studio timetables. It also allowed him to use film technique and thoughtful use of the shades and textures of the locations to unsettle rather than using grand, gothic sets like the Universal horror films of the era.
His decision didn’t stop him from being dedicated to manipulating the locations to fit his vision though. He painted some of them white to create a bold contrast between the backgrounds and his shadow–form antagonists. There’s also a wonderful story in the booklet about how Dreyer persisted in getting real spiderwebs spun in the doctor’s house.
Dreyer was known for using non-actors in his films and this is no different, for the most part, casting by looks rather than talent. Due to one scene requiring considerable skill, established actress Sybille Schmitz was hired to play Léone though. As such, she stands out among the cast. I must admit, I wasn’t a fan of West/Gunzburg as our ‘hero’. As numerous commentators on the film have noted, his blankness of expression does fit the dream-like tone, but he was a little too wooden for my liking. I was also a little put off by Rena Mandel’s performance as Gisèle, largely because her voice is almost comically squeaky.
The film can also be a little too confusing for its own good at times. Though it creates a powerfully disorientating atmosphere, the often unmotivated narrative jumps can simply be head-scratching in places, so I struggled to stay engaged throughout. I was rather tired whilst watching the film, which didn’t help matters.
Overall though, Vampyr is an eerie horror classic, presented as a dream, with a striking visual style. Its disorientating approach may make for a slow pace and a thin narrative, but this is a film more concerned with creating a mood and atmosphere that will put a shiver down your spine. Its ability to terrify may have been dampened over the centuries but it creates sufficient unease to keep you on edge and seep into your subconscious.
Vampyr is out on 6th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The film looks great for its age, especially considering the original negatives are believed to be lost. It’s not super-sharp, due to this, but it’s still a detailed, natural-looking image. There’s some flicker and fading in places but this may also be part of Dreyer’s unique intended style for the film.
As for the audio, I found the dialogue often wasn’t clear but, for a film made in the early days of sync sound, it holds up well and the music comes through nicely. There’s also the unusual option of watching the film with the unrestored audio track. It helps you better appreciate the clean-up job, plus some might find that, in cleaning up the noise, the remastered audio muffles the dialogue a little, so the original audio might, in some ways, sound clearer.
The Blu-ray includes:
– Hardbound Slipcase
– All-new 2K digital restoration of the German version by the Danish Film Institute, completed in 2020 after an extensive decade-long restoration process, with uncompressed mono soundtrack
– Optional unrestored audio track
– Two audio commentaries: one by critic and programmer Tony Rayns; the second by filmmaker andVampyrfan Guillermo del Toro
– Visual essay by scholar Casper Tybjerg on Dreyer’s Vampyr influences
– New video interview with author and critic Kim Newman on Vampyr’s unique place within vampire cinema
– Two new video interviews with music and cultural historian David Huckvale on the film’s score and its adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu
– Carl Th. Dreyer (1966) – a documentary by Jörgen Roos
– Two deleted scenes, removed by the German censor in 1932
– The Baron – a short MoC documentary about Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg
– Optional English subtitles
– A 100-PAGE BOOK – featuring rare production stills, location photography, posters, the 1932 Danish film programme, a 1964 interview with Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg (producer and actor “Allan Gray”), an essay by Dreyer on film style, and writing by Tom Milne, Jean and Dale Drum, and film restorer Martin Koerber
The two commentaries are both excellent. On his track, Tony Rayns expertly combines illuminating facts about the production with rich analysis. Guillermo del Toro’s commentary is less scene specific, allowing the filmmaker to passionately and intelligently dissect the film as a whole and argue its great importance in the horror genre in particular.
Jörgen Roos’ documentary on Dreyer is fantastic. In the 30 minute film, you get to see the master at work, shooting Gertrud, and he is also interviewed, allowing Dreyer to discuss, in person, his stylistic choices and aim to strive for authenticity in much of his work. The film helps show how important art/production design was to him too. I also enjoyed seeing footage of Dreyer at a premiere screening of Gertrud, awkwardly socialising with the then young French New Wave filmmakers and other luminaries.
Casper Tybjerg’s video essay provides a strong overview of Vampyr, discussing its background in considerable yet concise detail. It’s highly recommended viewing, particularly to anyone who might not have the patience or time to watch the film with the two commentaries.
In his interview, Kim Newman is typically knowledgeable and engaging. He discusses the film and its place in the vampire subgenre.
The piece on composer Wolfgang Zeller is wonderfully detailed, with David Huckvale running through many of the film’s music cues, explaining technically how they work to serve the film. Huckvale also talks about the source material, by Sheridan Le Fanu, in another piece on the disc. It’s equally as informative and well-researched.
The piece on Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg is excellent too. I may not have thought much of his acting ability but the actor/producer’s story is an unusual and fascinating one, with the Baron surprisingly touching the lives of some great luminaries of the fashion world.
I also appreciated having the uncensored scenes available on the disc. These show two key horror sequences in slightly more graphic detail.
Eureka’s customary booklet is replaced by a book which, at 100 pages, is positively stuffed with illuminating essays, interviews and archive material. Making up a good portion of it is a lengthy extract from Jean and Dale Drum’s book on Dreyer. This is marvellous, containing a detailed history of the production and numerous first-hand accounts and quotes. Some of their stories are remarkable. I also enjoyed the interview with Baron de Gunzberg, who had fond memories of the production.
Overall then, it’s a superbly compiled release, that leaves no stone unturned and presents the film in about as good a shape as possible. Very highly recommended.