Vampyr: Review

[Written by horror writer, Gary McMahon]

Vampyr: The Dream of Allan Grey

Vampyr (1932)

 

Cast: Julian West, Maurice Shutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Heironimiko, Henriette Gerard

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

72 minutes (R) 1932
Eureka Entertainment Ltd DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 9/10

Carl Dreyer’s subtle, silent and elusive retelling of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous short story Carmilla takes the vampire myth back to its dingy European origins, where the evil is represented by a spiritual rather than a physical assault as it works on a family from within.  There are no long capes, no white fangs, and no red-eyed stares to make young maidens swoon into the arms of a pasty-faced Count. This is the real thing: horror that makes no concession to a popular audience, but attempts to capture the oblique nature of bad dreams.

This is a film filled with symbols and repeating motifs. It is not what we see that connects us with the ancient dread we all carry within us, but what we feel; and the connection is one that happens in the subconscious rather than the conscious mind – a terror that hits us deep inside our imaginations. Watching this film, you feel anxious, and finally terrified, but you are unsure why. Nor are you able to see how this fear has been evoked – it just surfaces, rising from some hidden spot in response to the images on the screen. The effects of light and shadow are utterly mastered to offer us a truly idiosyncratic vision.

The film is virtually plotless, but that isn’t the point – what’s important here is what traveller Allan Grey (Julian West) experiences – or thinks he experiences – when he stops off at a small country village.

The visuals are rich and dreamlike, filled with subtle details which help depict the absolute wrongness Grey finds himself confronted by – dancing shadows capering without a source; strange figures who walk at night; an old witch woman and the doctor who aids her. One of the most disturbing scenes features the shadow of a man with one leg creeping around and climbing through a window. The shadow tracks down its owner – an old wounded soldier – and re-attaches itself, and as the soldier is called by someone off-screen, both man and shadow move together, reunited. It sounds such a simple trick, but in Dreyer’s day it wasn’t, and the overall effect is disturbing in a way that I’ve never seen equalled.

Vampyr is packed with these small, intimate terrors; an accumulation of unsettling details which add up to create a unique nightmare. Entire sequences do actually feel like the director has tapped into a nightmare, and is simply filming what he found there.

On one of the commentary tracks, Spanish director Guillermo del Toro mentions the repeated motif of the medieval memento mori (small reminders that one day we will all die, as symbolised by the presence of skulls and hourglasses). Skulls and skeletons are everywhere; time, or the fracturing of it, is represented by clocks without faces, timepieces with their internal workings removed. Everything is faded, washed-out (Dreyer filmed the entire picture through a series of gauze filters), and near the end of the film- during the infamous sequence where the protagonist witnesses his own premature burial – Alan Grey himself becomes transparent: we can see through him just as the evil character of the witch is able to see through the veil of death itself.

It is difficult to believe that upon its initial release, Vampyr was considered an artistic failure; it is one of the most incredible films I have ever seen – but much more than that, it is a true experience, a cinematic milestone that forces you to respond. Much more than the story of a vampire attack, it presents the argument that time is in fact a vampire, drinking away the lives of us all. The film raises cinema to the level of a work of art – what we view on the surface is just the beginning, and the layers beneath are meant to be scraped away to reveal the true meaning of the piece – whatever that meaning might be, and to whoever cares to investigate.

Vampyr (1932)

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Bite-size reviews of the Vampire Awareness Month films

[written by Vampire Awareness Month co-conspirator, Mark S. Deniz]

1. Nosferatu

I should love it more than I do (but I should really like cucumbers more than I do and grapes less than I do) but it is a classic, it gets the vampire flicks off to a good start and was a brilliant introduction to our little festival too!

It’s based on Dracula, yes? No? Not if you ask the Stoker estate…

OK, well it has some plot based on a novel but is essentially the first vampire film, and has stood the test of time somewhat. You really get a sense of what an impact it has had on the rest of vampire cinema, especially when considering it was ‘worthy’ of a 1979 remake and was the whole model for Shadow of the Vampire (coming up later in this review).

It suffers from some pretty dire characters though, especially in the shape of Hutter, who yet again shows the inability to get Harker anywhere near right in the film adaptations. I mean, Harker is this stoic, eager young legal assistant who suffers absolute horrors, resulting in a ‘brain fever’ and then after meeting Van Helsing and having his story confirmed becomes a super-hero!

Not so Hutter, who goes from village idiot to weeping child to running-about-innefective non-hero.

In the silent movie era there is a need for a little bit of hamming up and overacting, to get the message across and no one does it better than our boy Knock. The guy was mesmerising, like trying to follow a fly buzzing around the room. However, I did think he seemed slightly unhinged ‘before’ the madness struck…

Ellen was the saviour of the village and at the same time such a non-character in the film that I kept forgetting she was supposed to be a major player. Something about the time perhaps? Murnau’s sexual preferences?

That Nosferatu creature’s a bit cool though isn’t he? All that creeping around and shadows…yes, the shadows…he has them pinned!

I think it would be cool to ask Giacchino to do a film score which would make it would very interesting to watch again.

2. Dracula

Now this one must be based on Stoker’s Dracula, yes? Yes, good. I’m not sure I remember the armadillos or the possum in Stoker’s book but that must just be my memory…I mean…armadillos and Transylvania were pretty much made for each other…

Is it a film? Is it a play? Is it a mish mash of scenes all lumped together? I’m not sure and I’m not sure how many people have answered this effectively yet. It does set up Renfield as a very significant character and leads the way for other film adaptations to increase the air time of the ‘lunatic’.

It does want to be faithful to the plot of the novel (I think) but struggles, as so many adaptations do. It tries though and is equally trying because of it.

In terms of characters well there’s Lugosi’s Dracula, and after that we sort of forget about anybody else don’t we? I mean, I am aware that Dwight Frye received many plaudits for his role as Renfield but I feel that is more to do with the earlier audiences thinking lots of shouting and bright/wild eyes equates to good acting (well it’s still working for Anthony Hopkins today) but I found the character to be a little irritating…OK…very.

We’re back to Harker as an idiot and Van Helsing has not so much character here either.

Like Nosferatu, I think I’m supposed to like this more than I do too, although I love it. So none of that sentence makes sense…

No I’m aware it’s riddled with inconsistencies, it’s got some terrible acting in it but Lugosi is, in a way, a god of the early horror film and a true incarnation of the most famous vampire of them all. I still don’t think I’ve seen anyone quite grasp the count yet, but Lugosi came nearer than most.

3. Brides of Dracula

I’m this very powerful vampire that’s been locked away in a room, with a chain attached to my foot.” “I zee” (said in bad French accent) “But zen why don’t yoo become zee bat, how yoo say, and escape, or better still zee mist?” “Ah”

Was that explained? I don’t remember that being explained. And you see that word in the title, that Dracula word? Did you expect him not to be in then? Cause his brides would have to be pretty much his, wouldn’t they and not some Baron’s fodder? Or?

Isn’t a cross something that is a symbol of Christ, something that should be imbued with his holy essence? I’m not sure anymore, seeing as Cushing uses a windmill and candlesticks and then we see some medical supplies (don’t ask me what they’re called) stuck together in Salem’s Lot. I’m all confused now.

Thank god for Peter Cushing as Van Helsing for that bloody baron and that ‘French’ mademoiselle are a little too much for me. However, it seems she is not to be underestimated as she gets away from the Baron not once but twice.

This was a very important film to me when I was younger and it’s Hammer and there are some wonderful scenes in it – I mean for all my jesting about the windmill, it is done rather well. It’s also terrible though…and great…and terrible.

4. Kolchak – The Night Stalker

A simple idea that is developed really well, meaning one of my favourite films of the month. It’s pacing is just right and I think the story holds together rather well. Our first solid reluctant vampire hunter

Kolchak is one of my favourite vampire hunters ever! Yes, of course I’m saying that with a straight face, I think he’s excellent. Some really sharp dialogue and great approach to the whole thing. He’s pretty much a ’70s Sherlock Holmes, showing excellent deductive powers!

Shame about the rest of the cast then. No, just leave it now, I don’t want to talk about them, I’ll get annoyed again.

As mentioned earlier it works really well, it’s got the natural response to a reporter talking about ‘real’ vampires, especially one who’s been thrown off about ten newspapers earlier. It’s got some really creepy scenes (the whole house sequence at the end) and the twist at the end is so nasty it’s excellent!

And you have to applaud the ’70s funk music to accompany the scenes where Kolchak travels around Las Vegas, it’s just sublime!

5. Martin

We follow a troubled killer, Martin, who thinks he’s a vampire as he kills victims and drinks their blood (which in the definition of a vampire means he’s right). However his arch-nemesis is a crazy cousin who believes in the whole mythological side of it and wards himself with garlic and crosses. The film is a slow-paced, effective drama with an incredibly powerful conclusion.

The most disturbing of the films so far. Why? Because it’s the most real, silly. This is the story of a fucked up family with a fucked up killer, there are no supernatural elements and this could be happening in a house near you…see, you’re not going to sleep now are you?

6. Dracula

Plot follies abound in this adaptation of the greatest vampire story ever told and I was so disappointed to find that I did not love it anywhere near as much as I did when I first saw it as a trembling ten year old back in 1981.

For now my head is in a spin. I mean that Lucy is the heroine and Mina is the victim is bad enough but Mina is now a Dutch Van Helsing and Lucy a Seward. Why is Seward old and why is there no mention/appearance of Mrs Seward or Mrs Van Helsing. But nevermind, we’ve got that out of the way and now we can concentrate on those characters that made an impact.

Langella was a cool Dracula wasn’t he? Got him quite well I’d say, noble on the one hand and monster on the other, scary stare and guttural unpleasantries abound. Yes, I liked him it has to be said.

Shame none of the other characters stepped up to the light to do anything worthy…

7. The Hunger

Wonderful film, one of the absolute highlights of the month. Reasons are in its way to tackle the seductive side of the vampire, in a way that most films haven’t come near to, but also for that gruesome plot development that the lovers don’t actually die, they just come as near as they can come to it before Deneuve sticks them in an attic with those that loved her before – what a way to be dumped eh?

Lovely switches in music make this both a joy visually and aurally.


8. Vampire Hunter D

I believe I must have been in a very easy-going/forgiving mood when I first saw this film as it’s an absolute travesty, an embarrassing attempt at tackling the monster, both in terms of plot development and in terms of horrible characterisation and ridiculous plot twists. I hang my head in shame for selecting this for the month and know that somewhere, somehow I am going to pay for it – and big!


9. The Lost Boys

You guys love it, I know you do but I have to be honest and say I wasn’t much for it when it was released and I’m sure as hell not sold now. A combination of overrated actors (Sutherland, Haim, Feldman, Patrick) and some quite horrific oily torsos belonging to crooning beach singers made me shake my head in dismay when I watched the film. It’s OK but it suffers from one huge disadvantage and that’s the fact that it is in the hands of one of the weakest directors Hollywood has ever produced.


10. Near Dark

A much better film than Lost Boys (compared a lot, due to them being released in the same year, and having very similar themes) but I had three thoughts running through my head the whole time: was this an Aliens renunion (with no less than three actors from that film), what possessed them to get a Tangerine Dream score (and yes, I do like the band, but felt that they were a little out of place here) and when was the farmboy going to show he could actually fly…

Some excellent scenes though and a film that was not originally penned as a vampire film, made a rather good one. Funny that one of the biggest criticisms is that the vampirism could be cured by a transfusion when in fact Bigelow cited Stoker as her inspiration for that, reminding us that is how Van Helsing attempts to cure Lucy (and it was working until the pesky Count came back for more)!

11. Cronos

Another of the highlights of the month, chosen by myself because I knew just how damn good it is. It’s a slow but subtle tale of a man’s descent in vampirism using a very clever little device made by an alchemist and containing a very creepy bug…

Not only this but you’ve got some great characters, not least the fantastic Ron Perlman, who is just about perfect in everything he does (think of a bad role people) and the film cannot really fail.

It’s dark, it’s moody and it’s everything about the monster that is the vampire.

12. Interview with the Vampire

I went to see this first at the cinema and hated it. That it is one of the most boring, tedious films made about the vampire is only one element. Others, for example, that the characters are so badly cast you wonder just who picked them and whether they had actually read the book beforehand. And if your brain is not ready to explode with all this before the climactic scene, then get ready for that most whiny of rock bands: Guns ‘n’ Roses expertly murdering the Rolling Stones classic Sympathy for the Devil (although I have to admit I don’t like the original song much and took it as they were destroying the classic Laibach cover).


13. Shadow of the Vampire

Took my time getting round to see this after having had it recommended for a while and thoroughly enjoyed it. In direct contrast to Interview with, Shadow of, has an infinitely better cast, fulfilling the roles set. My only quibbles were that Cary Elwes need to put much effort into his character’s German accent when none of the cast around him were, made him sound rather foolish – bless him. The other was the need of Malchovich to shout around 40% of his lines in any given film (I think he is only bettered by Tom Cruise in that award).

Great idea with the film, that Count Orlock in, Murnau’s Nosferatu was actually a ‘real’ vampire, such was the need for Murnau to make his film believable. However, there were some very unneccessary scenes, such as an overlong bedroom scene towards the end and where was Knock, the man of the original?

14. 30 Days of Night

Oh wow, some new violent vampire, using an ancient language moving through Alaska, taking a town out every winter – or so we are lead to expect. What on earth was that language and why did they take so long to find all the inhabitants? I mean, there were only 152 of them and these monsters were a crack squad of eliminators. It was all jolly good apocalyptic fun though, using the dark of Alaska, as a wonderful aid to the vampires, meaning that the ‘wait for sunrise’ gimmick was a bit more challenging! Much more entertainting that the woeful Frostbiten, which uses a similar idea.


15. Let the Right One In

As much a social commentary about bullying as a vampire film (although Lindqvist disagreed with me when I suggested this and said it’s an out and out horror film) Let the Right One In was a breath of fresh air in Sweden, a country known for its love of Crime fiction and Science Fiction but equally known for not having much to do with Horror or Fantasy.

John Ajvide Lindqvist came in and changed all that, first with vampires, then zombies and now ghosts but it’s his vampire novel that seems to have had the most impact, with the film exceeding all expectations and in fact now being re-made for the US (as they don’t like reading subtitles).

I think a few people got carried away with this, saying it was the best horror film of the last 30 years, which it most certainly is not but it’s an enjoyable and interesting take on the genre.

16. Twilight

This hurt, I mean really hurt. It’s one tedious drawn out pouting between whiny teenage girls and equally whiny teenage vampires. I mean, wasn’t that Cullen bloke supposed to be nearly 100 years old? How come he acted like a lovestruck puppy then? My favourite section of the film (mainly for how dire it was) was when Edward explains to Bella that yes, he is a vampire. It goes a little something like this: “I’ve killed people” “I don’t care” There’s a whole lot wrong with that line and it sums up a lot of what is wrong with the film, a film that focuses on the wrong aspects of the vampire and those that come across its path.


BONUS: The Horror of Dracula

What’s all this thing again of not wanting to get Lucy or Mina’s name right and having all this surname confusion too? Oh and Harker as a librarian is rather disturbing, although not as tragic as seeing him as a vampire early on. Thank god for Cushing and Lee, was a cry early this month and I heartily agree – if it wasn’t for them the film would have been extremely difficult to watch, given its otherwise terrible cast and devotion to not sticking to much of the plot at all.

Kind of cool how Van Helsing dispatched the Count though eh?

However, it’s Hammer, the home of horror and there will always be part of that in my mind when I watch these.

BONUS: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Oh yea gods is all I have to say. This film is bloody dire, all visuals and no idea of what it’s doing. In fact it actually calls itself Bram Stoker’s Dracula and then goes so far away from the plot I thought it was going to change its name to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein about halfway through (not that it resembled that plot either but)!

One of the Vampire month contributors mentioned the feeling of getting a little sick in her mouth whilst listening to Reeve’s English accent but I have to admit to being equally appalled by Ryder’s. And what the hell was Hopkins up to? The guy was an absolute menace – I seem to remember Van Helsing being a bit clumsy and unthoughtful at times but this guy was out for blood – I kept trying to decide which of them (him or Dracula) was actually the bad guy! I mean Oldman was such a thoughtful old chap, except for when his ladies went for Reeve’s throat (whilst we cheered them on). I did love his roller skates he used to get him around the castle too – you don’t know what I mean? Watch that scene again where he comes up behind Harker shaving…

The soundtrack is gorgeous (although I have to admit to doing a copy of my CD without the Annie Lennox travesty on it) but otherwise the film is more dire than its predecessors on this list.

Mark’s Personal Top 16

Those knowing me, pretty much knew I couldn’t really get away with not doing a best of chart of the films and so here is my own personal choice for the best to the worst of the Vampire Awareness Month films:

  1. Martin
  2. Cronos
  3. Dracula (1931) – You shocked? I was!
  4. The Hunger
  5. Let the Right One In – Go Sweden!
  6. Kolchak: The Night Stalker
  7. Nosferatu
  8. 30 Days of Night
  9. Shadow of the Vampire
  10. Near Dark
  11. Brides of Dracula
  12. The Lost Boys
  13. Dracula (1979)
  14. Interview with the Vampire
  15. Vampire Hunter D
  16. Twilight