Shadows in the Mist
The great horror author H.P. Lovecraft famously stated that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. Carl Theodor Dreyer must have had a very much similar line of thinking when he was making “Vampyr”. For what this film does best is to make the vampire an unknown again, while every other film of the time was trying to put the creature of legend on the backdrop of reality.
But Dreyer does the opposite as the world of his vampire is quite a surreal dreamscape. And although there is a book in the film which outlines the nature and background and what-have-you’s of vampirism, the imagery of the film is telling a different tale. Shadows act independently from the movements of their owners, mysterious figures inexplicable appear and disappear, and events unfold in a very illogical fashion.
This spills over on the films structure and plot, which is quite abstract to say the least. The viewers who have a need to deconstruct and rationalize a film might find this one an extremely frustrating watch. There is no clear plot to latch on to, just a setup and the unfolding of events that are both surreal and bizarre.
But this abstraction and surrealism gives the film a very uneasy and eerie atmosphere. The film is never blatant in its attempt to scare the viewer, but instead just builds the atmosphere and it never gives you a solid plateau to stand on. In fact the more you try to rationalize some of the things you are watching the less sense they seem to make. It’s a fantastic use of surreal imagery as the source of fear. Even the hero is just merely an observer for most of the film as these events unfold around him.
The uneasy atmosphere is further supported by the wonderful dream-like cinematography. Most frames have an eerie softness and the camera is very free and smooth. Some shots and camera moves have a very complex staging which further enhances the disorienting effect of the film. All in all this just further supports the idea from my “Nosferatu” post, that old horror films just grow in effect as time goes on. “Vampyr” may not startle you with a surprise scare, but I found it to have a truly unnerving quality.
The fact that the film is somewhere halfway between a silent and a talkie also adds to this unease. There are really long stretches of the film that have no word spoken, and then when someone does speak it almost feels like a rupture from another world.
“Vampyr” is a must see film for any fan of horror or surrealist cinema. It almost taps in to that Lynchian horror of “Eraserhead” and “Lost Highway”. It is also a testament to just what a diverse filmmaker Dreyer was, for if there was not the name in the credits it would have been hard to believe that the same man made this film and “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. The cinematic language is nothing alike, but there is the same confident mastery in both films. I am truly looking forward to seeing more of his work.
Julian West - Allan Grey
Maurice Schutz - Der Schlossherr
Rena Mandel - Gisele
Sybille Schmitz - Leone
Original Language - German
Vampyr on IMDb