Halloween is a great season for catching up on classic horror films—needless to say, I suppose. These days (those of us well into middle age need remember) the term “classic” also includes films, music, etc. from our young adulthood; a slightly disorienting fact, but true nonetheless.
But I’ll be using the term “classic” in my own sense, which means I’m going a ways further back. There are more recent horror flicks that Eberle & I both enjoy: The Lair of the White Worm is a fun, if somewhat campy romp—Amanda Donohoe is both très sexy & très droll as the vampire—but generally we explore much earlier films come Halloween; & some of these are “classics” in the sense that everyone is (or should be) familiar with them: the Lugosi Dracula & the Karloff Frankenstein, both from ’31; the silent masterpieces The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (’20), Nosferatu (’22—though I’m also a big fan of Herzog’s ’79 version), & the ’25 Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera—this list could, of course, be expanded a lot. However, one of the best of the early horror films isn’t as widely known as the others I listed—that’s the 1932 Vampyr, by Swedish director Carl Dreyer.
The images & atmosphere of Vampyr are truly haunting—& haunted. From the opening shots of a silhouetted angel above a hotel sign & an old man shouldering a scythe while ringing a bell until the final shots of flour cascading down in a mill, the film is a swirl of eerie imagery. We see disembodied shadows, a man witnessing himself in a coffin (partly shot from the perspective of looking up thru a small window in the coffin), we move thru the claustrophobic but beautiful rooms of a chateau— & the objects populating the film, from chairs to a clock without a face to painted doors, are all photographed in such a way that they exude aura.
Frequently both the viewer & the characters are looking thru windows—as the protagonist Allan Gray is looking thru the window of his own coffin in a dream state. The film opens with Gray looking thru the lighted windows of an inn—& the lights are then immediately extinguished. Shots of windows proliferate throughout the film—tall windows in the chateau, a room in which the heroine is imprisoned seen thru a reinforced window, etc. At a certain point, we ask—“Which side of the window are we on?” This is “mirrored” as it were by the shadow figures—an evil peg-legged soldier who exists independently both as a body & a shadow; a shadow catching shovelfuls of earth as he “digs” in reverse; shadow dancers swirling across a room. At one point, we see an assassin’s shadow, & we ask, “Is this one of the shadow figures, or is this an actual shadow?” At another point, we see young Leone, who’s been victimized by the vampire, staring up from her sickbed in a shot that echoes our view of Gray looking up from his coffin.
This in itself mirrors the film’s initial description of Gray—a young man who has studied vampirism & the occult until the boundary between fantasy & reality have become blurred. Indeed, the plot of this very dream-like movie isn’t easy to follow; one is constantly questioning the “reality” of the onscreen fiction; how many fictive layers can there be? What does it mean in terms of “real” plot when Gray leaves his body to witness his funeral? What does it mean earlier when Gray awakens in his locked room at the end to find the Lord of the Manor there, leaving Gray a package inscribed, “To be opened at my death?” It’s the sense you might experience when you dream that you’re dreaming….
Vampyr was originally shot as a silent film, & it’s embued with the atmosphere I associate with silents. Though it was released as a sound picture, the added dialogue is sparse (my favorite line: when the heroine Gisèle asks, “Why does the Doctor always come at night?”) As with the better silents, the film’s world is much more visual than aural. The score by Wolfgang Zeller is, however, masterful. While never overwhelming the onscreen action (something those of us who work with silent film music should always keep in mind), it constantly supports & advances the story. The photography is haunting, & the effects (the disembodied shadows, for example) never seem cheap or gimmicky. Apparently parts of the film were shot thru a gauze filter, rendering the scenes indistinct, & again, illustrating the unsettling dream aspect.
Dreyer often used non-professionals as the actors in his films, & Vampyr is no exception. Only two roles are played by professionals—the role of Leone (by Sybille Schmitz) & the role of the Lord of the Manor (by Maurice Schutz). While the performances by the actors all “work” well in the film, the atmosphere surrounding the action is the real star & the real story. Dreyer apparently told his cameramen: “Imagine we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant, the room we are sitting in is completely altered: everything in it has taken on another level; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed... This is the effect I want to get.” Alfred Hitchcock said Vampyr is “the only film worth watching… twice.” (interesting that Hitchcock, who was so disdainful of actors would be so taken with a film mostly made with non-professionals)Our copy of Vampyr was taped off TCM a few years back; however, I understand it’s now available on two 2008 DVD editions showcasing the beautifully restored version—these are put out thru The Criterion Collection (in the US) & The Eureka Masters of Cinema Collection (in the UK). It was shown on TCM this month, but sadly, it was before this posting; sorry ‘bout that (my personal pick from the TCM upcoming line-up: White Zombie from 1932 with the great Bela Lugosi—it’s being shown on October 31st at 2:15 p.m. Eastern Time). Netflix is listing Vampyr as a future choice; they don’t have it available to queue, tho it can be “saved.” It does appear to be available in its entirety at YouTube (the first 20 seconds or so are an intro added by the user, but after this the film begins as it should—I didn’t watch the entire film on this site, but the run length seems correct. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe the user is correct when she claims that the film is public domain, but that's none of our business. From what I watched of the YouTube version, the visuals lost a fair amount in the transfer, but it does have the virtue of being free & available; the video has been on YouTube since ’06; the same copy also appears here on Google media. The Criterion Collection edition is available from Amazon.
If you can get your paws on this for Halloween viewing, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. This is true psychological horror, & chilling without relying at all on cheap thrills—a masterpiece of the genre.