With Vampyr, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer channeled his genius for creating mesmerizing atmosphere and austere, unsettling imagery into the horror genre. The result—a chilling film about a student of the occult who encounters supernatural haunts and local evildoers in a village outside Paris—is nearly unclassifiable. A host of stunning camera and editing tricks and densely layered sounds creates a mood of dreamlike terror. With its roiling fogs, ominous scythes, and foreboding echoes, Vampyr is one of cinema’s greatest nightmares.
Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer was hailed as a genius for his silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, but the movie was criticized by the Catholic Church, censored by several governments, banned in Britain, and made no money. Following that failure, the director sought to make a more commercial project next. The success of Dracula as a Broadway stage play gave him the notion of doing his own supernatural mystery story in a similar vein. The resulting film, Vampyr, would prove highly influential in the long term, but its release was poorly timed and almost completely overshadowed by the worldwide sensation of the Dracula movie starring Bela Lugosi.
Honestly, even without that competition, I doubt that Vampyr ever could have been the popular hit that Dreyer wanted. Even by (or especially by) 1932 standards, the film is far too experimental and idiosyncratic to catch the mainstream public's imagination. It was perhaps always destined to be a work appreciated mainly by the art film crowd and other filmmakers.
Officially credited as being based on In a Glass Darkly, an 1872 short story collection by Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu, the movie is primarily (though very loosely) derived from his Carmilla, the tale of a female vampire that seduces and preys on young girls. For obvious reasons owing to the era he was working, Dreyer was forced to remove the lesbian subtext implicit in the source. Also unlike the original story, he changed the protagonist to a man.
Obsessed with all manner of the occult, devil worship, and vampires, the foppish young Allan Gray (wealthy nobleman Nicolas Louis Alexandre de Gunzburg, who financed this film in exchange for starring in the lead role under the name "Julian West") travels to the small French village of Courtempierre, a spooky place where the shadows seem to have a life of their own. After witnessing a wealthy old man murdered in his estate by an apparently supernatural assassin, Gray studies up on the local lore about vampires – specifically the legends pertaining to a woman named Marguerite Chopin believed to be a vampire responsible for many deaths. Gray suspects that Chopin has already infected the deceased lord of the manor's daughter named Léone and desires the other, virginal daughter Gisèle as well.
That's about as coherent as the plot gets. The storytelling in the movie is enigmatic, to put it lightly, and is told more though images than dialogue. Vampyr was Dreyer's first sound film, and he approached it both aesthetically and narratively much as he had his silent works. Large chunks of exposition are delivered through text, either as intertitles or close-ups of book pages. (The characters spend a lot of time reading books.) Although layered with atmospheric music and sound effects, very little speaking happens.
To be honest, not much of anything happens at all. This is a very slow, moody picture with a minimum of action. The nominal hero, Allan Gray, is a very thinly-sketched and passive character who spends most of his time watching others and accomplishes nothing himself. His presence in the village has no effect on the outcome of the story. Numerous narrative threads are left unexplained or unresolved. At the end, even seasoned moviegoers will struggle to follow the story. It's more than just confusing; critical pieces of information necessary to make sense of it are simply not provided. Upon the film's release, audiences of the day were furious with the incomprehensible nonsense they'd been subjected to.
Anyone trying to decipher the movie rationally will likely come out similarly frustrated. Vampyr is not a work of rationality. The film has a strong dreamlike tone and progresses with the logic of a nightmare, in which one event leads to another immediately following it but any sense of a larger picture is obscured. Many viewers will resist this, but those who allow themselves to sink into it will be rewarded with some incredibly powerful and haunting images. Dreyer's innovative trick photography techniques are also still extremely impressive.
Despite its financial failure, Vampyr inspired future generations of filmmakers and has endured for more than eight decades. Critics of the day be damned, the film proved even more immortal than its title monster.
The Criterion Collection released Vampyr on DVD first in 2008 and later in 2015. Although both were within the Blu-ray era, an actual Blu-ray edition did not follow until now. The belated high-def disc arrives as spine #437. The single Blu-ray comes packaged similarly to the DVD, in an extra-thick slipcover box holding a cardboard digipak, a booklet with several essays, and a paperback book containing the movie's screenplay and a copy of the novella Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu.
The disc itself has a very simple, boring menu with a faint bit of music that times out and goes silent rather quickly. Annoyingly, the movie opens with 30 seconds of on-screen text about the video restoration that will come up every time you play the film. If you try to skip past this with a chapter stop, you'll also jump completely past the movie's opening credits. Although this isn't quite as irritating as the similar minute-and-a-half intro at the start of Criterion's La dolce vita Blu-ray, it's still pretty frustrating.
As a European production from 1932, Vampyr is quite frankly lucky to still exist at all. The original film negative was lost, and the 1998 restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna (from which Criterion's transfer is sourced) was compiled from three different prints in varying states of decay. Although some of the footage looks decent, most of the movie is very soft, grainy, and coated in a layer of fine vertical scratches. Some scenes look better than others, but within any given scene, the clarity of the image may jump around from shot to shot. Many scenes are also missing frames, leading to herky-jerky movement.
With all that in mind, detail in the transfer is about as good as can be expected. Nothing about the disc led me to feel that Criterion's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is deficient or exacerbating problems with the source. The movie is pillarboxed in the center of the screen at its original, very narrow aspect ratio of 1.19:1.
A disc like this is very hard to rate on the standard five-star scale. Objectively, the picture is plagued with problems that, had this been a modern production, would make it virtually unwatchable. However, to the best of my knowledge, no better alternative exists or may ever exist. This could be the best the film will ever possibly look again. On the other hand, I'd hate to eat my words should someone miraculously discover a pristine print hidden away in some archive a few years from now.
Barring that, I feel comfortable saying that I believe the Cineteca di Bologna and the Criterion Collection have made a good faith effort to provide the best version of this film possible within their means. Fortunately, the strength of Dreyer's images is still able to shine through even the deteriorated condition of the capture medium.
At the time of its production, German, English and French alternate versions of Vampyr were created with the cast speaking their lines in three different languages. Currently, the German version is the only one that survives. Criterion provides that soundtrack in PCM mono. As with the video, the audio quality suffers the limitations of its age and origins. A strong hiss is heard throughout. The musical score is also a little thin and sometimes shrill.
In certain scenes, the music will drop out suddenly, almost in the middle of a note at times. I do not know whether that's simply the way the movie was edited, or if it's due to more gaps in the source materials.
Fidelity aside, the movie has a pretty fascinating sound design filled with atmospheric music and creepy sound effects.
All of the bonus features on the Blu-ray first appeared on Criterion's DVD editions of the film.
In some ways, Carl Theodor Dreyer's horror classic Vampyr is easier to admire as a work of visual art than to enjoy as a movie. If you go into it expecting a coherent narrative with richly-drawn characters, it's bound to disappoint. However, as a mood piece and tone poem filled with numerous indelible images, it's still astounding.
Acknowledging that the film is 85-years-old and its original camera negative is long since lost, the Blu-ray from Criterion is probably as good as can be hoped. The disc may not have a huge volume of bonus features, but the ones present are worth digging into.