BluRay/DVD Reviews

VAMPYR

By • Aug 31st, 2008 •

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The newly restored Criterion edition of Carl Th. Dreyer’s VAMPYR (1932), a masterpiece of dream-like, hallucinatory horror–or sleepy scary, as a friend of mine puts it–arrives in a slipcase of pale grey, showing a frail, sleeping woman with the gigantic shadow of a scythe suspended above her head. Open the set, and you’re confronted with a grinning skull; then, on cardboard flaps holding the double discs in place, the startling face of a gnome-like man behind fog-enshrouded windows. (Leave the box lying about when people are visiting, and you’ll find it a real mood enhancer.) With their usual abandon, Criterion has included not only the expected 60 page booklet of essays and interviews, but also a 215 page book, “Writing Vampyr”. This contains the screenplay by Dreyer & Christen Jul (which has a number of scenes missing from or altered in the final film), as well as the film’s inspiration, Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella “Carmilla”, one of the first literary works to deal with vampires. (Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” was published in 1897, twenty-five years later.)

“Carmilla” is a wonderfully evocative tale similar to Snoopy the dog’s slice of Gothic kitsch: “It was a dark and stormy night”. There’s a nocturnal presence here that seeps off the page. Set in the Carpathian Mountains, Le Fanu’s work concerns two sisters, one of whom is slowly turning into a vampire under the influence of Millarca, a long-dead female demon. Le Fanu’s prose brings us cheek to cheek with the haunted existence of these characters, yet handles the supernatural elements with a very light touch. Dreyer’s film, a weird mix of the spiritual with the visceral, achieves a similar intimacy, but in a very different way.

While Le Fanu’s story centers on the sisters, VAMPYR’s scenario concerns itself with David Grey, a sensitive young man who arrives in a strangely deserted village at dusk. (He’s played with a beautifully sympathetic somnambulism by Baron Nicholas de Gunzburg, who produced the film and later was the managing editor of Harper’s Bazaar.) All is not what it seems, for David can discern shadows flitting about without any people nearby, not to mention abandoned houses whose windows look out at him like accusing eyes. In one amazing shot, the camera, taking David’s point of view, pans across an empty wall as the traces of dancing couples and a ghostly jazz band appear, their silhouettes careening wildly in a frenzy of movement.

While many of the elements of Le Fanu’s story, including the two sisters and the malignant lesbian vampire are present (there’s a haunting moment where one sister gazes at the other in a mixture of tenderness and bloodlust), Dreyer, through the use of ambiguous editing and images of hallucinatory dread, doesn’t recreate a narrative so much as place a viewer in the middle of a nightmare. There is a constant uncertainly as to whether what one is seeing is real or imaginary.

During a sleepless night, David sees a wraith-like old man (Maurice Schultz) enter his hotel room and leave a sealed package, with the warning, “to be opened only upon my death.” Curious, David follows the old man across a fog-laden landscape to his chateau. T here, David finds two sisters, Gisele (Rena Mandel) and Leone (Sybille Schmitz). Leone has strange wounds on her neck and spends her time in a trance-like state. The old man walks out of the darkness & down a spiral staircase towards David, holding a flickering candlestick. Suddenly, before David’s startled eyes, an elongated shadow (in a paraphrase of Murnau’s 1922 ode to vampirism, NOSFERATU) appears from nowhere to murder the old man.

This death scene is extraordinarily intimate, as the camera, by almost brushing against the actors, seems to embrace the sisters in their slowly encroaching grief, imparting a real sense of a life immeasurably interrupted. The early dawn light that illuminates this scene, filtered through the softness of a lace-curtained window, contributes towards its effectiveness. (Here Dreyer is moving towards that synthesis of symmetry and sublimity we find in his late films such as GERTRUD, where time and personality appear to merge in long held shots of actors placed against the ever-present light of a nearby window.) At this point the film shifts from a ghostly reverie to something more straight forward, temporality abandoning David’s point of view. Suddenly, Leone leaves the chateau, and Giselle and David follow her through a desolate forest of bone white trees, until they finally discover Leone in the power of a white-haired woman (Henriette Gerard), the vampire behind these fatal acts.

VAMPYR is possibly the last early sound film to retain the purely visual quality and subtle poetry of silent movies. Imagine, if you will, the gorgeous twilight of a Rembrandt etching evolving into the inky phantasmagoria of a Piranesi. Due to the difficulty of dubbing the film into three different languages–German, English & French (this was decades before magnetic tape)–the dialogue is spare. The story is told mostly though densely written intertitles that retain the flavor of Le Fanu’s Gothic prose. (The Criterion disc gives one the option of reading these intertitles in English.)

While there is a full-blooded vampire stalking through these eerie surroundings, I’m not sure you can really call VAMPYR a horror film. Instead, it would seem Dreyer’s work is part of the early 30’s European avant-garde, a companion to Bunuel & Dali’s L’AGE D’OR and Cocteau’s BLOOD OF A POET. Yet other than the fact that VAMPYR was also made for very little money provided by an enlightened sponsor, the sensibility is completely different. While Bunuel, Dali and Cocteau were interested in creating their own private language for a small group of similar-minded artists, Dreyer’s film was intended for a large audience. (Filmed in 1930, VAMPYR was unfortunately kept on the shelf by Universal, the film’s distributor, for almost a year due to the imminent release of DRACULA.)

Along with Murnau’s NOSFERATU–an unofficial adaptation of Stoker ‘s “Dracula”–VAMPYR has long been one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen., somehow erasing the separation between spectator and screen. Rudolph’s Maté’s extraordinarily fluid camera seems to suspend time, and, in its dilatory movements, travels between the portals of life and death (reflecting a plot concerning the undead denizens of the night) as it slowly sweeps across the faces of the actors and circles the cramped rooms of the chateau. Often, the camera precipitously tracks backwards, anticipating the actors’ movements, taking a point of view that seems to come from beyond human experience (whether the all-seeing eye of the vampire or a dispassionate deity, it’s impossible to tell.) There are sequences in this movie that will burn themselves into your brain, especially one terrifying scene where we’re invited to identify with the perspective of a wayward spirit majestically floating above a coffin on its way to the graveyard. Light and shadow instills a sense of dread, allied with the approach of something unknown, yet fearfully palpable.

Tony Rayns, in his warm and personable commentary, gives us a detailed shot by shot analysis, along with a brief history of the somewhat troubled production. It’s a fascinating listen, but ultimately is too centered on form. The cluttered frames in VAMPYR, filled with clashing carpets and wall hangings, quite different from the white backgrounds in Dreyer’s previous film THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, are not simply an aesthetic choice, as Mr. Rayns would have it. Rather, due to the messily specific settings that summon up a whole person’s lifetime in a single glance, it’s a very direct way to enter this fictional world and understand the characters that occupy those frames. For all its unusual narrative strategies, VAMPYR is steadfast in its focus on the human dilemma, of individuals in an ambiguous relationship to God and each other. In this respect, Dreyer’s film is utterly direct and terrifically moving, taking us beyond the surface of what we see to the inner core.

Overall, this is the best looking version I’ve seen of this film, as well as being smooth in its transitions, which has always been a problem as there were many fragmented prints of VAMPYR floating about. It’s also a huge improvement over the Image DVD from 1998, which had a black bar on the bottom to cover-up burned-in subtitles, and was cropped at 1:33, obscuring part of the frame. (The Criterion edition is in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1:19.) Although the original picture and sound have been lost, the image, except for some vertical scratches and a slightly intrusive graininess, is fairly crystalline. In particular, the scenes set at the chateau preserve the mother of pearl-like sheen natural to nitrate prints from the early 30’s. The soft, washed-out look of many of the exteriors is apparently purposeful, and in this transfer, generally works beautifully, although about 15% of the footage seems to come from another print of sub-standard quality, with a flurry of deep abrasions, somehow enhancing the otherworldly aspect of the production. (In film historian Herman Weinberg’s interview with the Baron de Gunzberg included in the booklet, it’s mentioned that Dreyer usually shot from 4AM until dawn, in order to get the effect of diffusion from low-lying fog. It also appears to these eyes that gauze was used over the lens, as well as partial exposure of the raw negative, to accentuate the dream-like atmosphere.) The music is especially crisp and free of all hiss and intrusive pops, surprisingly dynamic for an early sound film.

The disc of supplements is a little spare. There’s a 30 minute documentary by Jorgen Roos, featuring pieces of an interview with Dreyer. The most interesting footage is from the Paris premiere of Dreyer’s last film, GERTRUD in 1964, with a flirtatious Anna Karina, and a shy Jean-Luc Godard. When Dreyer asks Godard if he’s coming to the dinner afterwards, Godard blushes and says “maybe.” A 35 minute visual essay on Dreyer’s research into vampirism, as well as a radio interview with the director, rounds out the disc. Apparently, the Region 2 release of VAMPYR features a commentary by Guillermo Del Toro. It’s unfortunate Criterion wasn’t able to include this track, as Del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH uses a similar strategy to VAMPYR of opposing a sharply detailed fantasy world against a muted, dream-like reality.

The best extras for this reviewer are the book-length original screenplay and Le Fanu novella, along with the aforementioned Baron de Gunzberg interview. These make for fascinating reading, and are well worth getting, even without the added enticement of the DVDs. Not so much an exercise in horror as an exploration of that shadowy realm beyond death, VAMPYR combines images of haunting beauty with a serene accomplishment in cinematic form that may change your perception of what a film can be. For what it’s worth, this is my favorite DVD of 2008 so far. Highly Recommended.

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