Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
What happens when a world-class director unblushingly makes a scary movie? It's less
of a silly question than one might think. There have been great horror films or course,
and great horror film directors. But conscious contributions to the genre, especially
of the gothic kind, from the stratospheric likes of say Fellini, Ford, Eisenstein, and
Renoir are hard to find. Kurosawa, for instance, comes close to the spooky intensity
required with Throne
Of Blood, his successful and atmospheric reworking of Macbeth. Cocteau's
Beauty And The Beast is full of necessary fairytale terror and awe, and Hitchcock
produced in Psycho
a terrifying thriller with strong horror overtones, Bergman included a terrifying dream
sequence in Wild Strawberries, and so on. But while there are memorable outright
contributions here and there, notably from the likes of Polanski and Kubrick, genre pieces
at this level of artistry can be unexpectedly hard to find. One reason is that the greatest
talents in world cinema have tended to work outside of, or to confound, genre expectations.
Another is that they often reject the 'commercial' project in favour of something more
personal, more amenable to an outstanding creative nature.
The major figure of Carl Theodor Dreyer is one of a select group of directors deemed 'transcendental' along with the likes of Ozu and Bresson. Paul Schrader and other critics identify them as those filmmakers who habitually suggest spiritual intensity by ordinary means. Characteristically austere, often using non-professional talent in their films, they find universal truths through a gradual un-dramatic revelation of interior life. All this means in this context is that one would think such directors far away from the flashy supernaturalism and ghastly melodrama normally making up so much of the traditional horror film, a genre where the extraordinary provides the revelation for the audience, not the mundane. But then one remembers that both Dreyer and Bresson made memorable versions of Joan of Arc, where their representing of terrifying events showed how disturbing an emotionally stark and restrained approach could prove. And, in 1932, at around the same time as the first great Universal horror cycle was getting into its stride in Hollywood, Dreyer made his Vampyr.
It is interesting to compare Dreyer's great work with that of Murnau, the only other great director who made a broadly comparable title. Both the German director and the Dane took their inspiration from literary horror classics. Murnau based his Nosferatu (1922) on Dracula and in fact his film suffered from copyright problems from the Stoker estate, being suppressed as a result while, for his inspiration, Dreyer too turned to an English author: Sheridan le Fanu and his novel Carmilla. But the evil thrill of Nosferatu is that it takes place in a concrete 'reality' of sorts, ghostly special effects notwithstanding. By contrast Vampyr is a strange, dreamlike film, one virtually silent or subdued, despite its soundtrack. Moreover it mainly exists in variable prints, the poor state of which merely adds to the strange dislocatedness of unfolding events portrayed. Dreyer's terror lies in a world of shadows, surreality amplified by some remarkable cinematography. The roots of nightmare are ever subtle in a film where a camera movement can excite as much dread and anticipation as any vampire clawing at a victim.
Vampyr's story, such as it is, tells of Allan Grey (Julian West), a man studious of vampires... In a small French town, he takes a room at an inn. His sleep is interrupted when a strange man (Maurice Shutz) comes into his room speaking disturbingly about death, and then leaves a small package with instructions that it should be opened upon his death. Allen gets out of bed prowls around the inn and its spooky surroundings in search of an explanation. Eventually he wanders onto a nearby estate where he finds the mysterious man living with his two daughters. A vampire has bitten one of his daughters, and the house is shrouded in death.
Once seen and felt, the peculiarly eerie atmosphere that characterises Dreyer's work is never forgotten. Indeed, Vampyr's influence arguably began at once, for a similar tone of silent mystery pervades some scenes in White Zombie, incidentally one of Bela Lugosi's best, made just the same year another film which feels like a silent film but plays out in sound. Like Vampyr, White Zombie includes several wordless sequences that are startlingly eerie and atmospheric. (Both this and present film are much better than Tod Browning's famous version of Dracula also made at about the same time, which these days seem positively wooden by comparison.) And, years later, Ken Russell was to mimic the premature burial sequence of Vampyr, glass windowed coffin and all, in his uneven Mahler, while arguably a similar, dreamlike, touch can be found in the work of the French horror auteur Jean Rollin, who in the 1970s made of dreamy vampirism almost a genre of its own. Of his original film Dreyer said, "I wanted to create the daydream on film� to show that horror is not a part of the things around us, but of our own subconscious mind." To help achieve this, he and his cameraman Rudolph Mate shot much very early in the morning and frequently through fine gauze - a creative decision that immeasurably increased the sense of mystery surrounding events. The resultant shimmer and softness falling over scenes suggests the supernatural confusion felt by the hero, and add a spooky disconnectiveness to events. Allied to this, as already noted, this is a work where one is acutely aware of camera placement and movement, of shadow and light. Dreyer's sensitive direction means that the lens becomes a lurking accompaniment to Grey's (and therefore our) unease.
Main actor Julian West, who also financed a lot of the picture, makes a suitable impression; part of the mood in what is his only significant film. Forty years later he again appeared again on screen, but with less impact. In retrospect nothing could compare to his appearance here, with his pale, Lovecraftian features perfectly in tune with the gloomy goings on. His anonymous freshness as an actor makes of him an everyman, a dramatic unknown fitting in exactly with the director's preferred casting with the undemonstrative and normal. And unlike Nosferatu's celebrated settings of castles, doom laden ships and spectral carriages, Vampyr's unease is primarily set amidst the domestic: an inn, a to-do private home or in common place out-buildings.
Dismayed by distracting subtitles, often faded visuals and poor soundtrack elements, admirers of Dreyer's masterpiece have long cried out in vain for a restored version, especially now that the later films of the director have been reissued. Even such earlier silents such as the lesser, decidedly more obscure, Master Of The House (1925) have lately arrived with a five star treatment on disc. Whether or not this lapse is due to a fatal absence of original materials I am not sure, but fans of one of the very finest horror films, and a rare one by a great director to boot, will not be satisfied until this Vampyr at least is resurrected and given the new life it deserves.