Film: Vampyr (The Vampire; Not Against the Flesh; Der Traum des Allan Grey)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
I wonder sometimes how movies get selected for this list. I mean, how many vampire stories do we need? There are five versions of the basic “Dracula” story (the Bela Lugosi version, the one with Christopher Lee, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the two versions of Nosferatu) plus Lat den Ratte Komma In and this one, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, which also has about 100 different names--The Vampire, Not Against the Flesh, and Der Traum des Allan Grey; if that’s not all, IMDB claims that this film is also called Castle of Doom, making me wonder exactly how many names one film needs. I may well be forgetting one or two vampire films as well. And for all these vampires, we still don’t get Lost Boys or Near Dark and get only one werewolf, two Romero-style zombies, and three Frankenstein pictures, one of which is parody. Seriously, I’m getting a little tired of the vampires.
My familiarity with Dreyer prior to this evening was limited to The Passion of Joan of Ark, which is a true masterpiece. Vampyr was poorly received upon release, but in more recent years has become considered one of his more important films. Having seen it, I’m not sure why it’s gotten this resurgence of critical acclaim. It’s not that good.
Our hero is an occultist named Allan Grey (Julian West), who arrives in a small town and immediately starts having some bizarre experiences. Truthfully, this is the most interesting part of the film, with some unusual effects used by Dreyer to produce an unsettling atmosphere. We see, for instance, the shadow of a man digging, but he’s digging in reverse, with the dirt flying up to his shovel and being laid carefully back into the ground. More disturbing and far more effective are the shadows of people, which move independently of the people themselves. This is a great effect, in part because it’s difficult to see that it’s happening at first. The realization that the shadows themselves appear to be living things is a wonderful moment (I watched that part twice just to have that experience again).
Suffice it to say that there’s a vampire preying on the area, and in particular on a pair of daughters of the local lord. The older daughter, Leone (Sybille Schmitz) is currently under attack while the younger daughter, Gisele (Rena Mandel) frets. Grey learns all he needs to know about the vampire from a book left to him by the girls’ father (Maurice Schutz), who is killed early on. However, Grey also spends most of his time dreaming or hallucinating while most of the killing-the-vampire grunt work gets handled by the servant (Albert Bras). This kills the mood for me in some ways—the hero really does nothing but observe; the servant is the one who figures everything out.
It’s evident throughout the film that Dreyer was working with non-actors here. Schmitz (a professional actress) is quite effective when the madness of becoming a vampire is on her, and some of her facial expressions are reminiscent (at least in terms of camera angle and intensity) of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Mandel as Gisele is routinely awful and wooden and particularly unnatural. When, near the end of the film, she stands in a rowboat for the entire trip, I was at first nonplussed by the action, and then realized that her acting there was no less unnatural than it was anywhere else.
What this film does very well is create a genuine atmosphere that, while not especially horrific, is at least reminiscent of what horror should be like. Things are just off-kilter enough to be disturbing and strange. Rather than being terrifying, it is unsettling. The audience can’t simply witness what is happening on the screen, but has to actively attempt to decipher the vision it is given. This is most effective near the start of the film, and appears to be something of Dreyer’s specialty. That, more than anything, makes this film work. This sense is greatly enhanced by a tremendous soundtrack that only adds to the feeling of unease given by the setting.
What doesn’t work is the narrative. Dreyer’s story is confused and confusing. It’s not simply a question of paying attention to the details, but that things simply do not seem to work believably even in the context of the story. Careful attention doesn’t help here; the story simply does not follow any rules that can be ascertained. While that can make for an interesting experience some times, here it feels like a mistake.
Dreyer chose to have a great deal of this story told in large blocks of text in the form of the book being read by Grey and the servant. While this allowed him to cut down on the dialog (important, since he was filming in three languages at the same time), it also detracts from the story being told. The story thus doesn’t so much unfold as end up being handed to us, destroying a great deal of the mystery that could have come from this film and reducing the impact of the unsettling world Dreyer places us in.
Like many films of its era viewed today, Vampyr is a much easier film to respect than it is to like or sit down and watch. Dreyer’s ideas here are good ones, but he falls very short in the execution.
Why to watch Vampyr: It’s unsettling.
Why not to watch: It’s incomprehensible and not that good.