[In the spirit of Halloween, here's my take on a genuinely spooky film.]
When the Danish filmmaker Carl-Theodore Dreyer finished The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which was critically acclaimed but a commercial failure, he decided to make what could only be described as a horror film, which he called Vampyr.(1) In 1931, Ufa, the film's distributor, held up its release until after the appearance of both Dracula and Frankenstein, hoping to capitalize on the craze for such films. That Dreyer's film is more subtle and imaginative with its horror effects than either Tod Browning's or James Whale's Hollywood productions contributed to its failure in Europe. While Bela Lugosi's vampire became an iconic figure, Dreyer's Vampyr fell into a long and undeserved obscurity. As late as 1949, Paul Rotha's invaluable monograph, The Film Till Now called it "A film, much applauded by the intelligentsia, its obscure mysticism, its diffused and meretricious photography, its vague hints of the supernatural, have let the film become very much of a museum piece."(2) There is nothing in the least mystical about Dreyer's film, the photography is often "diffused" (with the use of a gauze filter), but can hardly be called "meretricious" since the film was a commercial failure, and Dreyer's "hints of the supernatural" are anything but vague.
I must admit that I am not a fan of horror movies. Even when I manage to find one that is effectively creepy, I find myself asking to what end does its creepiness lead?. I saw The Exorcist when I was 15 or 16 and it scared the hell out of me, but only because I hadn't yet made up my mind about the devil. My mother had brought my brother and I up on a diet of "Bucket of Blood Triple Features" at drive-in theaters, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I was afraid of the dark until I was 16. The movies were cheesy, schlocky, usually foreign-made, and laced with plenty of nudity. How my mother got my brother and I through the gate with all those R ratings is a mystery. Admission was "by the carload," so I guess the guy or girl at the gate never bothered to look at the occupants of the car.
Perhaps because they were never taken seriously by producers, few, if any, of the films classified as belonging to the "horror" genre were worthy of serious attention. However, when Vampyr was released it was still possible to take the genre seriously. After all, it was Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1921) that established it at a fairly high level of artistry. Even Dracula and Frankenstein, though incredibly sensationalizied, still have a degree of fascination about them, due to the performances of Lugosi and Boris Karloff.
Taking two stories from the gothic horror writer J. Sheridan LeFanu's collection In a Glass Darkly as his starting point, Dreyer, who was worried of becoming known as the "saint" director due to the overwhelming impact of The Passion of Joan of Arc, acquired the backing of Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg and avoided the expense of shooting in a studio by renting an abandoned chateau in the French town of Courtempierre. The chateau, in disrepair and infested with rats, provided him with just the right atmosphere of decrepitude and death for Vampyr. The Baron de Ginzberg, employing the screen name Julian West because his aristocratic family disapproved of his appearing in a film, played the role of the protagonist Allan Gray who arrives at "a secluded inn near the river in the village of Courtempierre."
Dreyer wastes no time establishing an atmosphere of weirdness: A man in a broad-brimmed hat rings the bell for the ferry. He carries an enormous and menacing scythe like the figure of Death. Once settled in his room at the inn, Gray hears a strange voice through a door leading to the stairwell and, looking up the stairs, is startled to see a man with no eyes emerge from a room. He returns to his room and locks the door but, lying in bed, the key is turned by an invisible hand and an old gentleman enters the room and paces pensively. When he notices Gray lying in bed, he goes to the window and opens the blind. Looking directly at Gray, he exclaims, "She mustn't die! You understand?" He then takes a small sealed parcel out of his pocket and writes on it, "To be opened upon my death." The gentleman leaves the same way he came.
These first scenes are shot virtually without dialogue, except for what I've quoted and three words spoken by a girl who runs the inn. In the early years of sound film, some producers resorted to making different versions of a film: one with German dialogue, one with French, English, etc. To avoid using the heavy and quite immobile sound cameras, Dreyer shot his film silent, adding the spoken dialogue, music, and sound effects in post-production. Dreyer's cinematographer for Vampyr was the great Rudolph Mate, who managed to move his camera fluidly around the film's cramped interiors, following the actors from room to room.
The rest of Dreyer's film involves Gray learning of a girl who lives in the chateau (whose father came to him at the inn) and is stricken by a strange illness. When he discovers she is the victim of a vampire, and that the vampire is being assisted by the village doctor, Gray helps to save the girl and destroy the vampire and the doctor.
Dreyer's cast is made up of mostly non-professional actors. I suppose it would've been too much to ask Baron de Gunzburg, having financed Dreyer's film, why he had to play the hero, Allan Gray. Tall, with unusually large eyes, he isn't required to give us much more in his facial expressions than the look of someone who has just sat on a tack. Otherwise he is utterly bovine.
At the film's end it is difficult to decide exactly what one has experienced. Dreyer indulges in atmospheric effects to create the cumulative effect of an hallucination. Although Gray himself has a vision in the film - the famous sequence in which he watches as his own body is buried alive, including shots through a window in the coffin lid - the entire film has the quality of a vision. Again and again I come back to the truly astonishing effect of a film: mobilizing forces, money and lives to capture images that end up as nothing more than shadows projected on a wall. The shadows captured by Dreyer in Vampyr are indelible, lingering in the memory many years after one has first seen them.
Ufa gambled on Vampyr capitalizing on the vogue for horror films created in Europe by Dracula and Frankenstein by delaying its release until after audiences had seen the two Hollywood films. Their gamble backfired when audiences, expecting a simple horror tale reinforced by expensive sets and elaborate makeup, became bewildered by Dreyer's non-linear style. Critics even condemned it as a ripoff of the vampire craze inspired by Dracula.
For Dreyer, who was his own producer for Vampyr, the failure of the film was so devastating that he suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be treated in a Paris clinic for three months. The name of the clinic - Clinique Jeanne d'Arc - must have seemed ironic to the beleaguered filmmaker.(3)
(1) Aka, Vampyr, or The Strange Case of Allan Gray.
(2) Richard Griffith, The Film Till Now.
(3) Information provided in Torben Skjodt Jensen's 1995 documentary, Carl Th. Dreyer - My Metier.