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)