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Vampyr (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1932)
Very loosely based on some scattered elements from Le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly, Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr is a hallucinatory flirtation with death. Set over the course of a single evening, the film follows Allan Gray, a young dreamer occupied with the occult. It’s a singular, and singularly upsetting, film, chock full of nightmarish imagery. Once it grabs you, you’re unlikely to shake free of its power.
Dreyer’s intensely subjective form obfuscates the plot. In the first half of the movie, Allan is rarely shown in the same frame as another person, reinforcing the impression that he could well be dreaming the others. Much like that found in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer’s framing is designed to stymie our ability to construct a cinematic space, making the camera seem unreliable. Surprise and illogic result. Disembodied shadows ignore the laws of physics. Characters storm into the frame, or are often revealed through a pan, apparently just outside of the lens’ view all along. This trickery is most memorably employed during the sequence in which Allan watches his own funeral, but it’s present throughout. Dreyer’s approach willfully obscures the slim plot. The narrative grows clear only in retrospect, by design. What is shown takes place during one evening, so we are forced to puzzle the rest out as we go, with many key events taking place off screen, or before the period depicted in film. This lends Vampyr a uniquely unmoored feeling, much akin to a waking dream.
Though it may feature spoken dialogue and a synchronized score, Vampyr owes a large aesthetic debt to silent cinema. An experience conveyed mostly through strong images, the film makes the most of its heavy symbolism, repeating it to maximize portent. A man with a scythe, an angel mounted on the inn, a painting depicting death looming over a sick bed, doors that open themselves, an ethereal reflection of a man walking across a lake, the shadow of a gravedigger shoveling in reverse, any number of skulls and skeletons, and a bottle of poison are only a few of the unforgettable images that Dreyer has conceived. These totemic symbols largely overtake the narrative, leaving mood in its place.
Vampyr also provides one of the clearest examples of Dreyer’s recurring obsession with the written word. Midway through the film, a character finds a book that details the vampire myth, and it’s only at that point when explanations finally begin to emerge. Time and again, characters refer to it as a guide, and it becomes the viewer’s guide as well, explaining both what we have seen and what is to come. Dreyer shows entire pages from the tome, filling the screen with the text. This approach isn’t as inelegant as it sounds, though. It merely acknowledges the text’s power in this story (and seems to nod toward its literary origins). Thankfully, the images, potent and poetic as they are, decidedly outweigh these words.
Vampyr might not be much of a vampire movie, but it’s one hell of a horror movie. It creates a sense of unease that few films can compete with, casting viewers into a realm where meanings are elusive and terror lies in every shadow. As Vampyr’s narrative gears stop spinning, it’s irrevocably cast a spell that cannot be adequately described in words. Like its antagonist, Marguerite Chopin, who is surely one of cinema’s least active villains, it exerts itself through a palpable, dark influence instead of through direct action.