Most classics of the cinema are great works of dramatic art. Not this one. But it offers a series of inspired original visions that helped shape the supernatural genre and changed the way we spook ourselves.
Director Carl Dreyer doesn’t really try for full coherent enactment of this archetypal vampire tale. When there is some story to be filled in and he doesn’t feel inclined to do it cinematically, he reaches for lengthy expository title cards or even just puts the pages of a creepy old book up on screen for us. The narrative jerks and jumps, with little cumulative tension. The sound is an afterthought and doesn’t contribute much. Oh, and the film isn’t very frightening. But it is a dream, and dreams don’t follow the plot.
As so often in German films of this era (OK, Dreyer was Danish), one marvels at the technical invention of the cinematography. The early interior scenes instil a hallucinatory unease, somewhere between The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Eraserhead. Dreyer offers closeness where space would be more comfortable, and vice versa. And the oddness of the camera’s angles and movements deny the viewer a sense of a secure viewpoint. The indications that usually allow us to get a grip on a narrative – connection between events, explanation of occurrences, motivation for actions – are withheld. As for the exteriors, Dreyer swathes them in a glowing haze, softening the perspectives and thus our sense of depth and distance, while endowing the figures with a gliding grace of movement. The action is punctuated with shadows and silhouettes that resonate with ominous visual portent – reapers, diggers, dancers. They don’t serve to tell us something, they just prime our minds with symbolic suggestions.
Vampyr is not just a director’s film. There is a central performance like no other from an actor who led one of the most remarkable lives of the century (a life that calls out to be told first by a serious biographer and then by a demented filmmaker). Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg traded in his mundane given name for the exotic screen alias of – ooh! – ‘Julian West’. He then laid a trail of adventure and debauchery from the Old World to the New. But this role must be his great achievement, in a film that he financed himself. His pale elegance and gravity of demeanour lend dignity and conviction in a genre where the mannered easily spills over into the ludicrous. Horror, like comedy, is no joke: it often needs the unhinged, but it more often needs to be played straight. The climax of West’s performance, and Dreyer’s tour de force, is a dream/out-of-body sequence that takes a scary idea and makes it sublime by the imagination, wit, and sheer oddness of its realisation.
How many of us can truly say that we have enough eerie in our lives? Vampyr is a deep well from which we can draw.