Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Year of release: 1932
Running time: 1 hour 13 minutes
Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 surrealist horror masterpiece, Vampyr.
It's rather astonishing that Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr was made in 1932. The films of David Lynch would be unimaginable without its influence. The countless vampire genre-plots we've grown accustomed to owe a huge debt to its iconography. Of course, other artists would probably have come along to extrapolate the notions of terror as somehow both mundane and phantasmagoric at some point, but its unlikely the execution would elicit such cinematic poetry. Vampyr isn't simply a grandfather horror film, but a distillation of how the scariest feelings come from something that may happen rather than what does happen. In that way, it's one of the subtlest horror films ever made while also being one of the most terrifying.
Shot on real locations with non-actors and conceived initially as a silent film, Vampyr does contain passages of dialogue, but essentially plays as a mood piece. Plot-wise, it's baffling and enigmatic. Aesthetically, it showcases Dreyer's penchant for astounding tracking shots, erie juxtapositions, and double exposure optical effects. The story, based on “Carmilla,” a 1872 short story by Sheridan Le Fanu, centers on a young man obsessed with the occult named Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg), who stumbles through the small town of Courtempierre before discovering that the residents are cursed by a vampire. Gunzurg's blank expression is deftly attuned to Dreyer's incredible image-making-- shots of coffins, candles, and fog-drenched exteriors abound--as he careens aimlessly through one dreamlike vignette after the other.
Dreyer's fixations here have less to do with the vampire's motives, or really even Allan Gray as a reliable narrator. Instead, he continuously confounds expectations through the idea of multiple worlds converging. The iconic sequence where Gray falls asleep on a bench and his "spirit" arises to go in pursuit of the apparent villains, is not only technically marvelous, but also a way for Dreyer to comment on how as audience members we often have certain expectations when it comes to genre. Vampyr not only eradicates these typical expectations, but also opens up tantalizing new mysteries by not giving us what we think we want from these kinds of stories. Throughout, Dreyer, along with cinematographer Rudolph Maté, concoct one indelible horror image after another-- a man standing by the river tolling a bell, a diabolical doctor suffocating inside a flour mill, Gray's waking nightmare of being buried alive, a young couple inside a boat surrounded by a thick haze of fog--even as the character's dark interior thoughts manifest themselves as surrealistic visual expressions.
Though critically reviled during its day, Vampyr is now considered a modern classic of the genre; something far ahead of its time both technically and thematically. By focusing on what truly scares us--the inclination of madness, of dream and reality becoming blurred, of that gradual realization that sinister forces may be at work beyond our comprehension--Dreyer tapped into the most primal form of psychological horror. Vampyr is an audaciously daring cinematic magic trick, and a sublime addition to The Criterion Collection.