Sunday, January 07, 2007

Vampyr – Review


Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Release Date: 1932

Contains spoilers

Vampyr is one of the most astounding genre films released (despite not really impacting the development of the genre) and yet it is not an easy watch. The original film itself was flashed, in other words exposed to low light before photography. This gives the print an over-exposed look but also a dreamlike quality which is further enhanced by shooting in the early morning when it was misty and directing artificial light through gauze. I have read that the flashing was done to the stock as one bit of film was accidentally exposed and Dreyer loved the effect. Worst is the soundtrack, the film has been salvaged and rebuilt from various language versions causing the language to change randomly (and the film to cut harshly in places) and the sound is generally very poor anyway, we can often not hear what is said (though the film is mainly silent).

the film is filled with haunting imagesThe Redemption DVD has subtitles during those parts rescued from other language prints but the English print parts are not subtitled and we often utterly loose the dialogue. That said, despite this, the film is compelling viewing and so very reliant on imagery, plus extracts from a book, that we can follow the story. In this review I have fully transcribed the extracts from the book as they are both genre fascinating and plot necessary. Given the print quality I must apologise for the screenshot quality but that very same poor quality adds, in an artistic sense, rather than detracts from the movie.

Jullian West as David GreyThe film itself was based on Carmilla but so loosely you will not, really, recognise any of Le Fanu’s story and is concerned with the adventures of David Grey (Jullian West). Here I must explain that in some prints he is called David and in others Allan. Julian West was actually Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, the man who financed the film, who used a pseudonym to avoid embarrassing his family.

We learn at the beginning that Grey has researched Satanism and vampirism and this research has left him susceptible to occult experience. When we meet him his wandering has taken him to the village of Courtempierre. Wandering is a good description, Grey wanders through the film, he is more an observer than an active participant – it is as though he is lost within the labyrinth. He reaches the village inn and we find that we are accosted by imagery. Grey walks through corridors, up stairs, the inn itself becomes representative of the labyrinth – later the whole village is.

a representation of death?Outside is a man with a scythe who tolls a bell. He is, on one level, just a villager and yet he seems to represent death for the village has become the place of death. Grey goes to bed but a man, the Lord of the Manor (Maurice Schutz), enters his rooms and tells Grey that “She mustn’t die.” He places a package on Grey’s desk and writes on it, in German, “To be opened after my death.” Grey feels that there is someone in the village in mortal danger and calling for his help.

Jan Hieronimko as the DoctorIn a surreal set of scenes, Grey wanders the village. We see reflections in the water of a river that are not duplicated on the bank, we see a man whose shadow moves separately to himself and also shadowy musicians. This is representative of Grey’s second sight. He eventually meets, briefly, the village doctor (Jan Hieronimko) who, once Grey has left, helps an old woman (Henriette Gérard) into the room. She passes him a bottle clearly marked as poison. When she is with the Doctor, skulls around the room move as though watching them.

The Lord of the Manor walk into a room, candlestick in hand, and looks at a young woman, who is his eldest daughter Leone (Sybille Schmitz). He says that her wounds are almost healed and she cries out “The Blood”. The Lord goes downstairs and we see Grey at a window. A shot is fired and hits the Lord. Grey rushes into the manor to the fallen Lord but cannot save him.

As suggested he opens the package and it contains a book, The Curious History of the Vampire, by Paul Bonnat, O.P. Published by Gottfried Faust’s Estate – 1770 AD. Interestingly (though this might be due to the various version restoration) the written inscription on the package had changed from that which I relayed above to “You can help free us from our affliction,” written now in English. Grey begins to read:

Belief in vampires is of ancient origin… tormented souls of the deceased wicked who rose on full moon nights to suck young blood that they might prolong their own shadowy existence…

The ‘Prince of Darkness' is their ally and lends them supernatural powers with which these dead prey upon the living…

It is interesting that the book claims a lunar relationship.

Leone is attackedThe younger daughter, Gisele (Rena Mandel), sees her sister walking in the meadow. She and Grey rush to her and as they approach we see the old woman over her. When they reach Leone the old woman is gone and she is unconscious. She is carried back to the house by an old servant (Albert Bras) and his wife (N. Babanini). We learn more from the book:

On such nights these creatures of the abyss seek out certain of the living and whoever falls victim to a vampire sinks irretrievably. A tiny red throat wound, like a rat’s or cat’s bite, is the mark of their damnation. Neither medical science nor prayers nor exorcisms can prevail against this…

Like a polluted contagion, the vampire’s blood-lust is transferred to his victim, thus an innocent human being becomes a vampire himself, seeking prey amongst his own kind. Entire families, whole villages even, may become infected by them…

Leone in her manic stateThis is traditional vampire lore, the vampire returning to prey on their family. It is also interesting that plague, much like it is in Nosferatu, is associated with the vampire. Leone has a scratch on her neck, as described, but refuses to allow it to be cleaned. She seems to look at things we cannot see, alternatively crying and manic. She tells her sister that she wishes she could die and Gisele informs Grey that she fears her sister will die.

We learn more from the book: Not only are the shades of the executed criminals subservient to vampires… A report from Hungary relates that the village doctor, who sold his soul to the devil, became a vampire’s accomplice in a series of gruesome crimes in that area… Thus does the vampire find his allies, not only among the living damned but also amongst the innocent…

With the victim in his power, the vampire tries to push him to suicide, thus to deliver his soul to the devil. For a suicide is damned forever, the Kingdom of Heaven is forever barred to him, and all hope is lost…

The Doctor arrives and we know, from the book and his association with the old lady, that he is in league with the vampire. He persuades Grey to give blood, weakening him and causing him to sleep and then sends the nurse away. We see the hand of a skeleton (perhaps death?) place the poison by Leone and she reaches for it. She is being pushed to suicide. This is genre interesting, the idea that it is not only the bite but loosing one’s own salvation that will carry the vampirism forward. Grey is woken by the old servant (who has been reading the book and we will come back to that) and manages to avert disaster and chases the Doctor off. Grey then pursues the Doctor.

Before we look at what befalls Grey next let us go back to the book and discover what the servant now knows: As strange as the existence of the vampire is, equally strange is the means of his destruction, for destroyed he must be, so that a tormented mankind may find salvation from them.

Many cloisters and libraries preserve in their secret archives precise diagrams and reports of how vampires are to be destroyed.

In the village of Kislovia, in Transylvania, where a vampire existed in the form of an old woman, whose nocturnal excursions had seeped a whole village in desolation, but who had been ‘dead’ for two centuries, the procedure was to open her grave at dawn, where she appeared to be asleep. An iron stake was then plunged into her heart, thus nailing the repulsive soul of the woman to the earth. Now she died a real death and the curse that was upon her and her victims was lifted…

Then was the village delivered, by the grace of the good Lord.

Tradition has it that even around here did vampires prey. A quarter century ago, a murderous epidemic ravaged the village of Courtempierre, claiming eleven lives. Doctors gave the contagion a medical name but the people insisted that a vampire caused the plague-like deaths.

Many still believe that only Marguerite Chopin, who is buried in the graveyard of Courtempierre, could be the vampire. She died in mortal sin, unrepentant, and the church refused her its last sacrament…

It is interesting that it is an iron, rather than a wooden, stake that is used to destroy a vampire. It is also interesting that the stake traps the malevolent soul rather than releasing it. The story of Chopin ties in, again, with folklore as we note that traditionally failure to follow the correct funeral rites (in this case the last rites) could cause a corpse to become a vampire.

Grey in astral formGrey reaches a bench and sits and we begin a series of startling images. His astral body leaves his physical body, a fantastically shot sequence, with Grey transparent. Strangely his astral body is able to interact with physical objects and he feels the need to hide from people as though he might be seen.

Grey sees his own corpseHe enters the Doctor’s place and finds his own body in a coffin and yet moves on, undisturbed. He then finds Gisele, locked in a room and tied. The Doctor returns and Grey watches and discovers where the key to her room is kept.

The Doctor and his assistant place a lid on the coffin containing Grey’s body. The lid has a window in it and we watch all that occurs in first person, as though Grey's awareness is now in the coffin. We see it sealed, we see it carried. Grey awakens on the bench and heads to the cemetery – the entire astral section was a vision (or perhaps a hallucination) that leads Grey to the cemetery.

In the cemetery the old servant opens the grave of Chopin and Grey helps. They Dissolution to skeletonfind the preserved corpse of the old woman. This is why I say that the film’s genre impact is low, the female vampire is, normally, depicted as a young, voluptuous beauty and not as a crone. The servant stakes her (which again shows Grey to be passive in the film and is unusual as the hero is normally active) and she becomes a skeleton. We see Leone awaken and state that *she* is gone and she, herself, is free.

Grey rescues Gisele (his only really proactive activity and one in which we only see his hands, taking the key, unlocking the door and untying the rope, it is when they are outside we see it is Grey) and they escape in a boat but, as for the Doctor, well he hears thunder and sees a face in a window. His assistant he finds dead. He runs and becomes locked in a mill’s flour store. He hears someone and asks for help, but is ignored. The machinery starts and his is slowly buried alive in flour. The scenes of his death are juxtaposed against the scenes of Gisele’s escape.

Gisele and the old servant's wifeI cannot begin to state how astounding the imagery in this film really is. As for the acting, it is difficult to tell. It owes much to the melodrama of the silent movie to display emotion but we have all but lost the dialogue. It is unimportant, however. These are not really actors; the majority of the actors were not professionals but people chosen by Dreyer on the basis of their appearance and mannerisms. Acting is not an issue here, the actors are images manipulated by the director who is the real star of the show.

Not an easy film to watch, given the print issues, but as I said entirely necessary for those who love the vampire movie and cinema generally. As David Pirie points out in “The Vampire Cinema”: “thirty-five years had to elapse before its most daring technical effect – the burial of the camera – would be successfully copied.

I have read complaints about Redemption’s print of this. I am unsure as to whether there are better prints but the score I give is for the film as a whole and not this print per se. 9 out of 10 reflects a film that is disturbingly beautiful and captures much between the traditional folklore of the vampire and the movie vampire – though its impact on the vampire movie genre was negligible .

The imdb page is here.

I have now, also, reviewed the Masters of Cinema edition of this film.


JamesGrantGoldin said...

Yes - not an easy film, but not one to forget. And probably the only one to emphasize the horror of whiteness.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

And such an atmosphere James