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 look; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed, and the objects are as we conceieve them. That is the effect I want to get in my film.
Those words were written by Dutch Expressionist director Carl Theodor Dreyer to describe his masterpiece of genuine horror, Vampyr. Where modern films derive their horror from the physical revulsion of torture and gore, and even contemporaneous films by Universal Studios made all the images of Gothic horror their stock and trade, Dreyer charts genuinely eerie and disturbing courses that would only be picked up by such latter day directors as David Lynch and Guy Maddin.
In every sense, Vampyr is a moody piece of horror. As Dreyer says, his ambition was to affect those changes in attitude that come about by subtle and uneasy queues of death and the supernatural. He succeeds as few directors ever have. It will be stated now and again before this review is out: Vampyr constitutes, in the opinion of this reviewer, the finest horror film ever made.
The story begins with young occult scholar Allan Gray coming to a strange, out of the way, out of the norm, castle inn in the Courtempierre region of France. From the moment he arrives, Gray and the viewer notice that this is a very strange place indeed. Vampyr begins its lugubrious journey when a man walks into Gray's room in the middle of his first night, leaving no word of explanation but for a package to be opened on the event of his death. Over the following days, Gray becomes involved in the eldricht goings on, with freakish people, disembodied shades, murder, and perhaps even a vampire.
The greatest thing that commends Vampyr is the direction and camera trickery which conveys the story with an unyeilding and completely accurate sense of dream logic. The film is exactly like one of those creeping, uncomfortable dreams that are not quite a nightmare and which you know is a dream but from which you cannot force yourself to wake. The special effects themselves are flawless, which is astonishing considering the time in which the film was made. The largest part of it was a happy accident. In checking the dalies, Dreyer and his cameraman noticed a pinprick in the canister which caused the footage to take on a hazy, dream-like atmosphere. Rather than reshoot it, they opted to keep the pinprick for the remainder of the filming.
All stops were pulled out in an amazing and concerted episode in the first half, when Gray ambles about the inn in the middle of the night, seeing numerous goings on and disembodied shades. Without any indication of how the feat was accomplished, the shadow of a one-legged servant of the vampire hurries about the locale, climbs a ladder and seamlessly reunites with its human owner. Meanwhile, dancers and a band strike up a party, all shadows without substance. In the office of the villainous doctor (who bears a striking resemblance to Mark Twain), the skeletons of fetuses cast the shadows of ravens while skulls turn to leer in attention when the titular character walks in the room.
Here, Vampyr adopts the far more intriguing, though less popular, tradition of vampires. Since Bram Stoker and Universal Studios, the nature and power of vampires have become very clearly defined. This stock character type has become ever more popular as horror films devolve into action movies with monsters and teenage romances. Originally, in the earliest literature and legend, vampires did not possess a kind of ecology or natural history. Each one was a weird, foul nexus of supernatural activity centred around the affront to life, nature and Divinity that the mere existence of the vampire poses.
For his creature of the night, Dreyer chose this latter type. A casual viewer might even be forgiven for not being clear on whether or not the aged woman named Margurite Chopin is actually a vampire. There are only two scenes in the film which suggest it with any clarity, and she is only in about four. For the vampire plot, Dreyer owes to the Irish author J. Sheridan Le Fanu and his short story of lesbian vampirism, Carmilla. However, as the passion of the dying, vampirized sister play out in the walls of the lordly manor owned by the man who interrupted Gray's sleep, the director still invokes the earlier folklore. As Gray reads "The Strange History of Vampires" by the fictional Paul Bonnat, he learns that vampires are formed out of suicide and unrepentant death under the power of mortal sin.
Vampyr not only exemplifies a dreamlike atmosphere, but also exudes a dreamlike logic. The second half of the film recalls Le Fanu's The Room in the Dragon Volant and its theme of premature burial (both short stories are to be found in the author's 1872 anthology In a Glass Darkly). Reeling from the transfusion of blood he gave to the dying sister, Gray stumbles, sits on a bench, and begins a disembodied journey into a possible future where he sees the victory of the vampire as she looms over his own coffin. With entirely accurate dream logic, the protagonist is able to step in and out of his body, either seeing through his own eyes or seeing himself from an objective, third person perspective.
Not content to preempt modern horror and contrast against Hollywood, Dreyer's Dutch Expressionism even stands against his colleagues' German Expressionism. Compared to the flawless subtlety of Vampyr, even classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and Warning Shadows can seem crude, without the excuse of a decade's passage to save them. Unfortunately, this translated into a critical and box office failure for Dreyer at the time. After spending the previous five years in litigation with his studio over The Passion of Joan of Arc, this response would cause the director to retreat from filmmaking for another 10.
Truly great and ingenious films have a tendency to be ahead of their time. While Vampyr has not found the wide popular audience of some of its equally underrated kin, it is nevertheless ripe for mass rediscovery as what is perhaps the finest horror film ever made.