Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: "Julian West" (Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg), Henriette Gerard, Jan Hieronimko, Sybille Schnmitz, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel
Written by: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Christen Jul, based on a story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: German with English subtitles
Running Time: 72
Date: 06/05/1932
IMDB

Vampyr (1932)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Master Bloodsucker

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the all-time great filmmakers, the Danish-born Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) made what Paul Schrader termed "transcendental" films. That is, they attained something a little greater than the drudgery of the everyday, and in Dreyer's case, something close to the divine. In this country, he's primarily known for five films: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). Vampyr is typically ranked the lowest of these first five masterworks. It was produced with a comparatively lower budget and may not look as professional as the others, and it also has the loosest most ramshackle plot of the five films. But I suspect the real reason for its lower status is the fact that it's a horror film. Myself, I generally rank it not only as one of the four or five greatest horror films, but also as one of the greatest films ever made, regardless of genre. It's a masterpiece that gives me the chills.

The film opens on a thin, dreamy, young occult enthusiast, Allan Gray (played, under the stage name "Julian West," by Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, a nonprofessional actor and film aficionado who helped finance the film). He checks in to a creepy hotel and goes to bed. An old man enters his room and warns him that, "she must not die." The old man leaves a package "to be opened after my death." Gray gets out of bed and experiences a series of strange events. He sees shadows of a man with a peg leg (the shadow finds its owner and rejoins it) and of a party. He meets an old man with a mustache (Jan Hieronimko) who asks, "Do you hear that?" Gray replies that he hears children. The old man tells him with a sinister stare that there are no children here. Like David Lynch or Luis Bunuel, Dreyer was one of the few filmmakers who could capture the elusive, intangible feel of a fleeting dream.

At this point, the old man with the package is shot. Gray runs to help and meets the rest of the inhabitants of the hotel. It turns out that the man with the mustache is a doctor, and that one of the young daughters of the hotel owner is sick with some kind of strange malady. Gray opens his package, which turns out to be a book, and begins reading all about vampires. He has a dream where he leaves his body sitting on a bench and then finds himself in a coffin with a window in it. There's even a point-of-view shot from inside the coffin! Despite his reveries, Gray steps up at the end and does his best Van Helsing on the vampire(s).

Adapted from stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, the whole film has a white, diffused, dreamy look. There are several shocking images besides David Gray's funeral dream. When he first checks in to his hotel, he takes a look around by candlelight. He examines a painting in extreme close-up, looking at the figures in it one by one, slowly, slowly, until he comes to a skeleton. When the old man comes into his room, Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Maté -- who went on to direct the great Hollywood film noir D.O.A. (1950) -- place a pool of light near the floor on the opposite wall from the door, not exactly where one would expect. The effect is that the room gets darker as the door opens wider. These are just two very small moments in the greater scheme of things. Some of these things are trick shots that have been imitated many times over the years, but others are atmospheric shots that have never been duplicated.

DVD Details: The Criterion Collection has released an essential new Vampyr DVD to accompany their previous, superior releases of the other four Dreyer films. It uses the same restored source material as the 1998 Vampyr DVD from Image Entertainment, although the sound is much clearer and the problem of the subtitles has been corrected (on the older DVD, non-optional English subtitles were plastered inside a big black box over the already-existing German subtitles). The Criterion edition has subtitles in places where none existed on the previous DVD, so that Vampyr feels less like a purely silent film and more like something ahead of -- or out of -- its time. Also, since the original version features text that fills up the entire screen and the English subtitles float on top of this text, Criterion has created a new English-language version, which is easier to read. Despite the age of the film, Criterion has cooked up an amazing two-disc set, with a 1966 documentary on Dreyer, a "visual essay" from scholar Casper Tybjerg, a radio interview with Dreyer, and a commentary track by critic Tony Rayns. Finally, we get a beautiful paperback book with the screenplay and one story by Sheridan Le Fanu, "Carmilla."