There are some horror films that just rely on a formula of lost teenagers, bizarre deaths, psychotic murderers and suits made from human skin.
Although people do like to criticise films such as Saw for their gratuitous, blood splattering “plots”, these follow the tradition of a genre of plays from Elizabethan and Jacobean England as well as Paris’ own Grand Guignol which specialised in the recreation of gruesome murders and torture. Having said that, I criticise these films for being, well, unadulterated and tedious nonsense.
Then there are some horror films that operate on a deeper, more disconcerting, more psychological level that are downright disturbing. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr is one of these films. There is very little dialog in the film because Dreyer had to shoot the film for three languages, so making it without much speech solved a lot of problems. Instead it uses traditional black title cards.
The film is troubling and bewildering because you are never quite sure what is happening and what view is actually being represented. Its style reminds me of a David Lynch film. You are constantly prompted to change your ideas of the plot, and there seems to be many different plots, depending on how you interpret the various scenes. The world is one that you can recognise but yet there is the unknown and the mysterious nature of the actions, unsettling any sense of fixity that you might have had. Filming in mist and fog further heightens the sense of a lack of rigidity. The camera angles suddenly change to confuse and bewilder the viewer and there is a constant suggestion of threat and danger.
The ghostlike presence of some of the characters, and the shadows walking the film suggest the haunting and otherworldly existence of the village in which the film is set. Who is dead in the film and who is alive?
The film is based on the works of Sheridan La Fanu and the essential plot is that a young man called Allan Gray arrives in a village and checks into the local inn. A stranger gives him a book that is to be “opened in the event of my death”. Allan learns that the stranger is a local nobleman who has two daughters, one of whom has a mysterious illness, caused by an old vampire. The vampire controls dark and powerful forces and so Allan has to find a way to destroy her and cure the daughter.
The man who plays Allan Gray uses the stage name of Julian West. His real name was Baron Nicolas Louis Alexandre de Gunzburg and he helped fund the making of the film. He went on to become senior fashion editor of Vogue and fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. He was mentor to the fashion designers Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein.
Baron Nicolas Louis Alexandre de Gunzburg aka Julian West
In a way, the plot is irrelevant. This is a film to watch and simply revel in the atmosphere, the astonishing imagery and the thrill of being lost in a strange world where death dominates, where little is solid and other worlds and dimensions are revealed.
This film was poorly received when it was released, first in Germany and then, recut, in France. Maybe it was simply ahead of its time. You can watch it on-line here if you like.
It’s about 80 minutes long and the quality is generally poor, but that can add to the pleasure. For me, this film is a masterpiece. It bears repeated watching and the power it exerts is not diminished.