Vampyr - The Strange Adventure Of Allan Gray DVD Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    Vampyr - The Strange Adventure Of Allan Gray DVD Review
    SRP: £19.99


    Presented in its original non-anamorphic aspect of 1.19:1, this release of Vampyr has undergone the German restoration that took place in 1998 but is without the further tinkering that Criterion performed upon their recent edition. The result is unashamedly aged and withered, yet perfectly captures the almost glowing phosphorescence of Mate's lighting and Dreyer's use of white and grey to illuminating the film with its own ethereal radiation.

    All the way through, the film exhibits spots, flecks, burns and fades, the contrast wavers, though nowhere near as much as you would think, and grain flutters about - which is exactly how Vampyr should look. Considering the vintage of the material and the various prints in existence - French and German variables, with the fabled English print possibly never to resurface - Vampyr often looks astonishing. Detail, for instance, can be quite revealing, with faces and locations - primarily interiors, of course - displaying much more finite qualities than I have ever seen before. Costumes, tools and bric-a-brac all present themselves with far more stability and depth and the countenance of places such as the vampire's old factory, the spooky barn and the chateau is bolder and possessed of a richer visual integrity.

    The use of light and shadow, the unimpeachable province in which any version of Vampyr must excel, is given the fullest range of contrast that I have seen in the film yet. Obviously it is not perfect and some scenes fare considerably less well than others, but the gauzy whites are often beautifully filtered and the blacks, though rarely solidly black, have a great deal more density and presence than any previous version offered. Scenes such as when Peg-Leg's errant shadow returns to him and the terrific moments when the doctor is creeping about the chateau present blacks to the fullest capability of the transfer. It is the exteriors that suffer the most, with scenes set amidst the fields and the trees that come across quite poorly and harshly rendered. It must be said, though, that there is very little that even a painstakingly restored transfer could do to alter such instances.

    Pleasingly, there is little or no evidence of edge enhancement and the grain inherent in the picture is exactly that - inherent in the picture and not scrubbed away, leaving us with an image that remains as vital and film-like as you can imagine. Plus there is very little wobble or judder manifesting themselves, enabling Vampyr, and all of its gorgeously languid photography, to play smoothly across the screen without hiccup.

    The differences between this and the Criterion version are not profound, but they are apparent. With further digital cleaning-up, the Criterion appears smoother and has many pops and scratches removed, but this is also at the loss of such surface detail as that found upon the faces of the cast - the doctor's scrunched-up, whiskery visage especially - and upon the texture of the woodwork, the wall-coverings and actual density of the image which, on the Eureka transfer, has more depth and solidity in comparison. By contrast, the Criterion - which is certainly no slouch, folks - comes across as a little dryer (no pun intended). It is worth noting, however, that some large splotches and flares that still openly plague the Eureka have been quite effectively removed.

    Hats off then for the German restoration team who have worked wonders here. In my opinion, the Eureka transfer has the edge. What damage and age is allowed to remain in the picture comes with the sweet incentive of a tad more detail and, arguably, a more filmic representation of Vampyr.

    Vampyr - The Strange Adventure Of Allan Gray Picture


    Although a sound film, Dreyer actually had intentions for Vampyr being produced silently. As a result, the film was indeed recorded that way, with the cast miming their admittedly few lines, and then adding their voices later on. It is also worth mentioning that Dreyer had German, French and English versions prepared for their respective foreign releases, with all the cast having to perform their lines in the appropriate language each time around. But what we have here is the German edition, with new and improved English subtitles, and the audio quality isn't at all bad for a film dating from 1931.

    As can only be expected, there is a lot of background hiss to this Dolby Digital 2.0 mono presentation, although there doesn't appear to be any serious pops or drop-outs to mar a pretty consistent handling of the sound throughout. The score, from Wolfgang Zeller, is a touch brittle, but the high ends of the frequently shrill string section remain clear, whilst the low rumbling bass has only a small, though reasonably effective degree of presence. Dialogue manages to be both crisp and curt yet clear enough not to sound muffled or swamped by the age of the track. The various effects aren't going to set anyone's system on fire, but they cope well, all things considered.

    There is also a restored and treated audio track that has had much of the hiss removed, though for some reason I found this less atmospheric and couldn't really stick with it.

    Vampyr - The Strange Adventure Of Allan Gray Sound


    The Eureka release contains two extremely worthwhile commentary tracks. The first from the label's regular contributor, film scholar and historian Tony Rayns, covers a lot of ground whilst also remaining steadfastly scene-specific. Rayns is always an enjoyable listen and his musings here are no exception, leaning towards to the technical at times but still able to balance things with insight, opinion and facts about the cast, the production and Dreyer's style. But with this track also gracing the release from Criterion, it is down to Eureka to whip an ace from out of their sleeves with their exclusive second chat track that proceeds to sit us down to enjoy the movie in the company of the currently lauded filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, a master fabulist himself. Any that have heard his discourse on other films, or seen him in interviews should know pretty well what they are in store for ... and Del Toro doesn't disappoint. Garrulous, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, his interest - nah, scratch that - his obsession for this film is infectious and I can definitely see the echoes of Dreyer's unusual approach in Del Toro's own themes - clockwork mechanisms and machinery - and visual panache. The Mexican also provides some powerful food for thought about the religious aspects of the story proving that the best of those working in this business are also devout movie-lovers and intellectuals, themselves. Occasionally, though, he can become bogged-down within the twisting confines of his own wild metaphors and interpretations and only the welcome spontaneity of such moments as when he gives out his email address and urges us to report three of four other films from the period of equally cinematic genius.

    Two deleted scenes, totalling 3.41 mins, removed by the German censor in 1932 are presented here, showing two of the deaths in the film in more graphic detail. We get some text-based scene-setting regarding each one, too. The extended killing of Marguerite is actually quite ludicrous - Allan keeps on hammering and driving the metal stake deeper and deeper until, I swear, by the end of the slaying the other end should have been seen poking out of the soil in Australia. Also the death-by-suffocation goes on for far too long. Yes, it is distressing, but the overall effect is somewhat diminished by its sheer interminable nature. Both scenes are without sound, although in the case of the first one, you can quite easily imagine the thudding clang of the stake beneath Allan Gray's hammer. Plus, at least with this take, we get the definite involvement of Gray who, in the final cut, only appears to hand the stake over to the servant.

    The Visual Essay (34:32) from Casper Tybjerg is a great feature that covers the making of the film in some depth and, using a montage of images, stills and clips as well as interview footage of Dreyer, himself, embroiders a fascinating dissection of the influences and groundbreaking techniques that brought the unusual tale to life. Neatly chapterised, the piece takes in the casting, the scouting for locations, the filming style and the fabled cut scenes. Tybjerg even reads from the original screenplay and the novelette from Le Fanu with some attempt at evocation in his voice. This is a fine and highly stylised work that I wish went on for a little bit longer.

    Then we get “Carl Th. Dreyer (1966)” a 29-minute documentary from Jörgen Roos that takes an interview with the director, at the time of the Paris premier of his Gertrude as its centrepiece. A little stuttering and somewhat unsatisfying, this takes a brief look at each of his films and allows him to discuss his methods and his ideology towards making movies. Clips from each illustrate the documentary.

    A curious but decent enough featurette then takes a look at the extraordinary life and times of “The Baron”. Nobility-turned-actor-turned-fashion-editor, Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg took the American Dream literally and, after helping to produce and star in Vampyr, left for California and dallied about trying to get a foothold in Hollywood. Eminently stylish and sporting the kind of sleek and iconic looks that could have gotten him places in motion pictures, the Baron eventually migrated to New York and took residency at the helm of the successful publications of the day, though his strange days as a vampire hunter would never quite leave him. Thankfully, he was proud of his experience working with Carl Dreyer and the film is just another curiously fitting stepping-stone in a life that seemed half-poised to jump ship from his aristocratic background.

    Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, the story that inspired Vampyr is presented as a pdf file on the disc. Here, the Criterion release wins out, as they provide the story, alongside the full, original screenplay for Vampyr, complete with all the cut or missing scenes, in a handsome soft-backed book. Le Fanu's story, although influential upon the vampire genre in that it instigated the deadly allure of the female of the species with Hammer, especially, taking it under their wing, is hardly spectacular but I would still encourage those new to it to read through it and discover one of the immortal works of Horror's first fledgling days.

    Eureka's set also includes a gorgeous 80-page booklet that provides some great information on the making of the film and those who were involved with it, and is lavishly illustrated too, with a wonderful section at the back publishing many rare production stills. It is funny to note that, even here, the famous shot of a dead man is still being printed upside down, the same way that it always appeared in all those fabulous horror film tomes that I collected as a kid. There is also the famed shot of the vampire setting the dogs free to do her bidding. Also contained is the text from the original 1932 Danish film programme, an excerpt from Jean and Dale Drum's book, “My Only Great Passion: The Life And Films Of Carl TH. Dreyer”, that presents a wide-ranging collection of facts about the making of the film, and a detailed essay from Tom Milne that examines the vagaries and resonance of the film. But a really smart inclusion are the “Notes on the Restoration of Vampyr” from Martin Koerber, that reveals the work that went into bringing Dreyer's film back into it fullest and most enjoyable state.

    The Criterion edition offers a different book that, almost as good, provides us with an essay from Kim Newman about the historical importance of the female vampire, a treatise from Mark Le Fanu (who professes kinship with Sheridan Le Fanu), a great interview with Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg from 1964, and the same notes on the restoration from Martin Koerber that appear in Eureka's book.

    One great little thing worth mentioning is the photograph of Dreyer and his cast and crew that is spread across the inside sleeve of the DVD - with their drinks, suits and cigarettes, they all look like a precursor to the infamous photo of Jack Torrance and the guests of Kubrick's Overlook Hotel from The Shining.

    Vampyr - The Strange Adventure Of Allan Gray Extras


    Whilst Vampyr is actually unlikely to win over many new fans, it remains a strongly imaginative - both thematically and visually - founding stone for the horror genre at large. Its very oddness can be both fascinating and infuriating and it is this elusive element that keeps the film at the height of its critical praise with snobs and cineastes yet, conversely, runs the risk of alienating the very audience who would empower the genre it would help to forge. Another one of Vampyr's many paradoxes. There is an undeniable power to Dreyer's imagery that becomes bolder the more you see it. The fractured narrative and the curious style of the film is also something that gradually gets beneath your skin, creating a deliciously shiversome impression of something loitering perhaps just over your shoulder. The film will never be for everyone, however. For every genuine fan there will be a swarm who simply cannot abide it lack of horror, its funeral pace and its frustrating, nonsensical narrative. But for those who tolerate its air of mystery and the uncanny, its deliberate vagary and deceptive lack of substance - there is much reward.

    Having both Eureka's and Criterion's new versions of Vampyr, I should be able to point out which is the better option. Well, extras-wise, it would have to be Eureka's release, if only for the addition of Guillermo Del Toro's passionate and frank commentary. The other new bonuses - the censored scenes and the featurette about the Baron - are also eminently welcome. Visually, though, is the matter where individual taste comes into play. Eureka's print is handsomely restored but far less processed than Criterion's which, translated means that it looks a little rougher and older. However, like many other commentators, I feel that this plays into its favour. For a film as obviously aged as this, the pock-marks, flickers, grain and sandpapered quality of the image actually help to create a more redolent atmosphere of time-alteration, alienation and the disturbing illusion of the cast smothering within the picture, itself, which only bleeds into the unique mood of Vampyr all the more. Therefore, I would, personally, recommend Eureka's MOC release, although real devotees, of course, will want both versions.

    Vampyr - The Strange Adventure Of Allan Gray Verdict

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £19.99

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