Much to the dismay of his admirers, Danish filmmaker Dreyer followed his silent masterpiece THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC with a horror film. The result, his first foray into sound, was the greatest vampire film ever made and one of the few undisputed masterpieces of the horror genre.
Thrillseekers, beware, though, because it's not that kind of film. VAMPYR, rather, is subtly unsettling rather than gory or shocking; it is such stuff as nightmares are made of.
Loosely based on the Le Fanu collection of stories, In a Glass Darkly, the film begins as young David Gray (West) arrives in a dark, mysterious European village and takes a room at the inn. That night a strange old man (Schutz) gives gives him a package to be opened in the event of his death.
David later witnesses many strange events, among which is the murder of the old man. David meets the dead man's daughters (Schmitz and Mandel) and opens the package, which contains a copy of Strange Tales of Vampires. Realizing that the town is at the mercy of one of the undead (Gerard), David
struggles to save himself and the two young women.
Such are the bare bones of the plot, but its unfolding, leisurely and fragmented, is not of tantamount importance. What really matters are features like the muffled offscreen sounds and the lack of dialogue explaining them; the misty shooting style (achieved via filters and by working at dawn);
and Zeller's spare but sinister music (a highlight is his "Shadow Polka"). The sequence using this music subtly suggests the vampire's power. Angry at the villagers's revels she cannot join, she stands alone, framed in silhouette by a doorway and with large wheels around her. She shrieks for quiet
and, without a cutaway, Dreyer tells us her command has been obeyed. Another sequence, in which the one-legged gamekeeper's shadow leaves his body behind to do the vampire's bidding, is also left unexplained. Throughout VAMPYR, a deep, muffling sense of terror slowly envelops both village and
viewer, reinforced by Dreyer's brilliantly disjunctive construction of space. Mate's cinematography creates many memorable images, from the scythe-bearer by the water to the tainted elder sister awakening to the call of bloodlust as she eyes her innocent sibling. The marvelous Schmidt (remembered
in the title role of Frank Wysbar's classic FERRYMAN MARIA), in the difficult role of the semi-vampire daughter, makes this moment one of the most horrific in the entire film. Best of all, though, are two more famous sequences. The doctor, one of the vampire's accomplices, meets his doom in a
flour mill, smothered by the cascading (and purifying) white dust as the agonizingly slow workings of fate and the machinery take their toll. Earlier, David, after donating blood to help a victim, dreams of his own burial. Handled largely from David's view, with the sealing of the coffin lid, the
ride to the cemetery and the icy glimpse of the elderly vampiress through the coffin window, this imitated but never duplicated sequence must rank among the greatest uses of point-of-view camera ever filmed. Sensual but remote and vague, gripping and yet somehow unsatisfying, VAMPYR is yet another
of Dreyer's brilliant meditations on faith, love and salvation. For him, the vampire's curse haunts the soul foremost, and this unique film experience is likely to haunt your memory long after the film runs out.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Much to the dismay of his admirers, Danish filmmaker Dreyer followed his silent masterpiece THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC with a horror film. The result, his first foray into sound, was the greatest vampire film ever made and one of the few undisputed masterp… (more)