Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr is a visually ambitious tale that lacks the esteem of silent predecessor Nosferatu (1922) and the renown of contemporary Dracula (1931), but remains an eerily beautiful fever dream and a superior vampire film.
Following the fiscal failure of 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer sought to create a commercial film. Vampires were en vogue at the time. The popularity of Bram Stoker’s Dracula had spread from the page to the stage in London and New York. The Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration London After Midnight, a thriller with vampiric overtones that is now believed lost, had been a recent international hit in theaters; a film version of Dracula directed by Browning was made as Dreyer pursued what would become Vampyr.
Dreyer turned to In a Glass Darkly, a collection of short stories by the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu first published in 1872. In particular, he borrowed elements of Carmilla, a novella notable in part for its avant-garde portrayal of a powerful, female vampire and its hints of lesbianism.
The movie’s focus is on occult student Allan Gray (Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, the movie’s financier, performing under the alias Julian West). But as film scholar Casper Tybjerg points out in a visual essay that accompanies the Criterion Collection’s Vampyr release, Gray is really the viewer’s vessel, our representative; he may not be psychologically deep, but the film’s psychological power is derived in part from putting us in the shoes of a passive observer who encounters the unexplainable, and indeed the young Gunzburg—by no means a talented actor—has a pleasant, open face onto which we can project our own reactions.
Gray, traveling the French countryside for research, stops for a night at an inn and becomes embroiled in an effort to save a local landowner’s daughter from a malevolent vampire. Along the way, Gray encounters disembodied shadows, mysterious animal noises, and—in a highly influential scene—his own funeral from inside his coffin.
The film is fragmentary, and many occurrences that Dreyer punctuates go unexplained. While a lack of surviving complete prints and cuts demanded by German censors of the age contribute to some abrupt moments in the Vampyr we have today, the film is intended to be as enigmatic as a dream. To watch Vampyr is to see a master filmmaker at play, pushing the boundaries of a burgeoning genre and of early sound cinema.
Characters enter and leave the frame from unexpected directions, jarring our perception and sense of space. The camera moves with fluidity and insinuation, lingering just enough, for example, on the bodiless reflection of a figure running along the shore of a pond to register with Gray and haunt our imaginations.
But to describe the experience of Vampyr as akin to piecing together a hazily remembered nightmare is an injustice to its pleasures. Even nightmares possess at least a hint of magic, and Vampyr is cinematic sorcery.