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Vampyr Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 23, 2008

    Vampyr Review
    For a modern audience, Vampyr presents quite a cold test of patience. Unlike its contemporaries of Murnau's fabulous Nosferatu, Browning's stage-bound but atmospheric Dracula and Whale's compellingly gothic Frankenstein, Carl Th. Dreyer's lanquid, trancelike meander through a half-told tale of vampirism in a small enclave perched geographically just outside of Paris, though more accurately described as being just outside of reality, itself, is a curious film indeed. Completely absconding with sensation, violence, or even any overt horror to speak of, it relies upon suggestion and, more importantly, the impression of occurrences taking place, of sensations and emotions and of things glimpsed but rarely understood. Never actually surreal, the film nevertheless plays with images and symbols, poking audacious fun at such potent visions of the farm-labourer standing waiting on the riverbank, his everyday scythe lying across his shoulder and in his hand the bell from a gallows-like scaffold to summon the ferryboat, or the mischievous activities of shadows absconding from their owners and making merry without them. Even if such imagery seems rather blatant nowadays, there is no denying the frisson that accompanies them.

    “She mustn't die ... do you hear?”

    Universal took a wonderfully direct approach to their horrors. Steeped in gothic atmosphere and a redolence that you would need an axe to chop through, they still wanted to provide those big moments, those snarling, groping, tussling pay-offs when the monsters were revealed and the lightning struck. Yet, at the same time as the Terror Titans of Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster were leering magnificently down from the cinema screens over in Hollywood, a little Dutch auteur was beavering-away at his own adaptation (loose, folks, extremely loose) of another of horror's literary greats, Sheridan Le Fanu's vampiric novella Carmilla from his In A Glass Darkly collection, which formed the threadbare basis for a descent into madness and death the like of which the cinema had not seen before and would never see again. Chronicling the wayward adventure of one quietly intense traveller called Allan Gray, who seemingly crosses from dimension to another when he arrives at the stricken village of Courtempierre and finds himself amidst a series of vampire killings. When shadows cavort in freedom from their masters, strangers enigmatically implore him to aid their mysterious cause in the middle of the night and a young girl's very soul seems to hang in the balance, Gray finds the macabre atmosphere of the place irresistible and can't help investigating the odd and menacing occurrences, himself. Further examination of the plot, written by Dreyer and Christen Jul, won't be necessary, for Vampyr is a series of visual and thematic set-pieces, symbolic vignettes that skirt around the conventions of formal narrative and weave an intoxicating and sinister lullaby that positively defies direct interpretation in anything other than emotional and spiritual context.

    Is it actually a horror film, though?

    Yes, it is. And a damn fine one, at that, though, by its very nature, it appears to defy such simple categorisation. Its very curious methodology and execution is down to the fact that the horror film, as we now accept the term, was in its infancy when Dreyer crafted Vampyr. Dark, compelling movies had existed before, of course - Der Golem, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom Of The Opera and The Man Who Laughs etc - but the form was still in flux and would only become solidified and recognisable once Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy had appeared from out of the shadows. Carl Dreyer, possibly, though doubtfully, unaware of the groundbreaking trend developing in Hollywood, used the surreal and abandoned state of dreams in which to set his tale, eschewing the laws of physics and the normal style of storytelling, instead opting for a world of skewed viewpoints, intense motivations and a mixture of the archaic with the revolutionary in terms of narrative and characterisation. He also managed to imbue his slight, but hugely metaphorical film with a unique flavour of truly European sensibility, an almost medieval feel of faith-rocked belief in the otherworldly.

    Dreyer had already tasted acclaim with his highly regarded silent work The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and, with the backing of the Renaissance-man, Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, a wealthy young man so determined to get into movies that he bankrolled the production in return for the lead part in it, he switched his attention to a genre and a style of movie-making that had no rules, no agendas, no template. His penchant for finding unique actors for his films reached a new height with Vampyr, perhaps goaded by his own imagination. Like Dario Argento would do much later on in the likes of Suspiria and Inferno, Dreyer would spot unusual looking people with peculiar physicalities, non-actors for the most part, and reel them in. In Vampyr, he found some truly memorable faces. The evil doctor, played by Jan Hieronimko, for instance, was surely an influence upon the comical professor in Roman Polanski's Dance Of The Vampires (1967). The naïve innocent, Gisele, played by Rena Mandel, was, in fact, a nude model, yet in Vampyr she exudes all the sweet, terrified fragility of a dormouse. The aged vampire, herself, Henriette Gerard, has a perpetually constipated frown, haloed by a shock of white hair that looks like the shape Darth Vader's helmet was based on. And, Allan Gray as played by the Baron, himself, under the pseudonym of Julian West, is a floating, expressionless observer, a figure so bereft of personality that he eventually transcends character and becomes the almost impotent eyes of our own dreaming selves. But in this bizarre, gauze-veiled netherworld we observe not only our own obscure dreams but those of complete strangers as well, the film becoming a hazy, distorted map of the fragmented thoughts from several different, though equally frightened imaginations.

    The vampiric angle of the movie is quite well addressed without resorting even once to the flamboyance and the sexual power that would become staple ingredients of the genre once Hollywood took hold of it. In this way, Dreyer's take on the myth remains decidedly European - it foregoes the decadence and virility that would epitomise the bloodsuckers who would run rampant from Lugosi onwards until today, in favour of the grubby, dishevelled and, indeed, needy clutches of a secretive, furtive harridan draining the life and vitality from a haunted village that seems to be providing her with more than just blood for a prolonged existence, its very susceptibility to her occult powers enhancing her strength all the more, whilst weakening their spiritual resolve. The more apathetic they are, the more dominant she becomes, belief and fear feeding her. Whilst Dreyer omits the latent lesbianism that Le Fanu had worked into the original story of Carmilla - so beloved by Hammer - he still keeps the female vampire's targeting of another young girl which, of course, would possibly act on a subliminal level to give the impression of the hag somehow rejuvenating herself and even domineering the more attractive and youthful woman.

    “Why does the doctor always come at night?”

    The use of human aids, or familiars is also a trapping of vampirism that is taken from the prevailing literature of the genre's formative years. Though, in Vampyr, this has a much more understandable motive - Marguerite Chopin, as we learn is the name of the vampire, is old and decrepit. She needs the villainous doctor in order to help procure victims, access to homes, aid with escape. And seemingly he, in turn, requires the services of a man-servant who can fetch and carry and possibly even provide some occasional muscle. But this story is also highly renowned for its depiction of the victim's gradual succumbing to the vampire plague as well. Whilst much is made of the slow turning from human to ravenous monster throughout the later filmic incarnations, Dreyer does something extraordinary and uncanny with material that would become formula ever after. It is not a question of a lack of effects forcing him to play the crucial, hugely evocative and memorable sequence when the mesmerising Sybille (Diary Of A Lost Girl) Schmitz as Leone, suffering from a mysterious malady that has been weakening her night after night, awakens and slowly turns to contemplate her innocent sister, her fragile, sweet face assuming the vulpine cunning of a predator and, her tongue obscenely playing about her teeth, grins malevolently at her until the vampire's spell is broken by a flash of shame and self-loathing, all in one momentous set-piece, two-camera take. This is bravura stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable and sullied, yet transfixed with pity just the same.

    Complementing all this is the amazing camerawork from Rudolph Mate which was way ahead of its time and even proves that the influence of Vampyr also visually stretches to Sam Raimi and his Evil Dead movies. The playful use of shadow and the conjuring of oddities from seemingly every corner of the frame are one aspect for sure, but two other examples stand proud as clear progenitors for Raimi's photographic dexterity. Look at the wonderful moment when Gray enters the deserted barn during one of his initial expeditions through the eerie village and pauses atop a ladder to peers through a trap door. After a nice little tracking shot that we assume follows our hero's eyes across the floor, we then travel back the way we came to discover that Gray has now scurried off along a corridor. This shot is then expanded-upon tenfold a little later on, with a revelatory 360-degree circular turn that sees us as Gray's eyes investigate a dingy room, very akin to Raimi's Ash-POV camera roving slowly about Bruce Campbell in the first two Dead movies. Only Dreyer goes a wild step further in the trick department as, and this is the inspired bit, when the subjective shot returns to its starting point, we find that Grey has, in fact, once again vamoosed and left us, having moved off into the room, cutting the strange celluloid umbilical cord that attached us to him. Such dislocations are rampant in Dreyer's diffuse, yet always picturesque fantasy. Another fantastically elegant, complex, and lengthy shot tracks into the chateau, around its sitting room, and then flows backwards down a main corridor as more and more people enter the picture. Of course, the scene that most authorities agree is the single most elaborate, bold and grandly self-assured would have to be the tour de force dream sequence in which we, alongside a paralysed and bewildered Gray, look out of the little window in the coffin we are being buried in at the onlookers who peer dispassionately down at us, the last of which, most unnervingly of all, is the vampire herself. Set-piece creation such as this takes real vision and a devout commitment to obtaining such an absolute mood of claustrophobia and paranoia that no director active in Hollywood at the time would ever have dared contemplate. The likes of Whale and Browning were acutely aware of how to manipulate a camera, with Lugosi's mesmerising stare and Karloff's grimly pathetic hands groping towards us, but they never quite managed to put us so indelibly into the picture as Dreyer did. The use of backlit gauze creates the illusion of ethereal vapour floating about that, conversely as it transpires, breaks the barrier between us and the characters in the film, somehow luring us into their realm.

    Inevitably, the film suffered censor cuts in some territories, but the real fascination regarding missing scenes is wrapped around several fabled moments that were either never filmed, but survived in the screenplay, or that were actually filmed (or partly so) and then removed by Dreyer, himself. Although a test screening proved disastrous and forced him to rethink some elements, the film, as we see it now, is the most complete that is available, despite the requirement of timings and music and effects still meaning that the two censor-cuts can't be smoothly reinstated. Stills provocatively hint at other scenes and moments that can't quite be accounted for and this, naturally, provides the basis of much debate amongst historians and buffs. One sad omission that still can't be reinstated is the amazing-sounding sequence when the evil Marguerite uses her powers to summon up a pack of dogs and use them to chase down a young shepherd-boy, ironically shepherding him to her. Whilst this scene exists in the screenplay, Dreyer evidently had difficulty making the dogs do as they were told and the sequence was ultimately dropped. Allan Gray's questions about the sound of the child and the barking of dogs to the doctor in the old house were a direct consequence of this incident as, after spying the lad's predicament, he had originally sought to aid the shepherd-boy from his plight. And, even more tantalisingly, we can see a photo of the vampire controlling the dogs in the accompanying booklet with this release, although as depicted in this shot, they seem more like wolves in a cage at the zoo. Incidentally, this image has long been a point of fascination for me - it appears in many of the wonderful old horror film compendiums that were so rife in the seventies and early eighties (nothing better for a ghoul like me to open on Christmas mornings!) - almost on a par with the fabled Spider-Pit sequence from the original King Kong, possibly because it shows a more demonstrative, more actively aggressive vampire than the weakened old crone that we see in the final cut. Either way, I would dearly love to see this full sequence as it would add so much to the texture of the vampire's threat.

    Regarded by many as a masterpiece, Vampyr certainly sets a precedent or two, but it harbours slyly just outside the horror genre proper which is still a commendably unique and rarefied spot in which to languish. Not concerned with outright shock, Dreyer wants to wrap you up in shivery cobwebs of uncomfortable dreams, purveying an atmosphere of unease, disquiet and the most alluring oddness you can imagine. With strange performances - the wide-eyed, but bland Baron actually bolsters his own presence by not behaving in the conventional manner and Sybille Schmitz is extraordinary as the cursed Gisele - and real locations filmed tantalisingly at the most magical of hours - during dusk and dawn - Vampyr provokes and fascinates it equal measure. Like all vintage classics that either began or broke a trend, its mystique is inescapable and the story behind its production - alternate takes, lost scenes etc - become part of a myth that never fades, merely recedes through the mists of time as if beckoned by Dreyer's own bidding. Certainly one of the most celebrated fantasy films from the period, it is rife with snobbish, high-brow delight, but, take a little time with it, try to accept its warped visual stratagem and unorthodox narrative and allow its bizarre and unearthly fugue to draw you in ... there is far more intelligence and invention and pure fantastique on show here than in a dozen or more vampire movies made today.