Monday, October 18, 2010

Film Review: VAMPYR (1932, Carl Th. Dreyer)

Stars: 4.7 of 5.
Running Time: 75 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Julian West (star and producer, an aristocrat who was never involved with another film project), Sybille Schmitz (DIARY OF A LOST GIRL, HOTEL SACHER, and the real-life inspiration for Fassbinder's VERONIKA VOSS), Maurice Schutz (THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Gance's NAPOLEON), Rena Mandel, Jan Hieronimko. Directed by Carl Th. Dreyer (THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, ORDET, DAY OF WRATH). Based on work by Irish ghost story writer Sheridan le Fanu. Screenplay by Christen Jul and Dreyer. Cinematography by Rudolph Maté (GILDA, TO BE OR NOT TO BE, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, director of film noirs like D.O.A.). Music by Wolfgang Zeller (THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED, SERENGETI).
Tag-line: "The strange adventure of Allan Gray."
Best one-liner: Not really that kind of a movie.

Carl Th. Dreyer's stab at expressionistic horror was one which he thought would bring him mainstream success and acclaim– it had marketable young actors, eerie imagery, and vampires- it should've been all the rage, or so Dreyer thought. But it was largely a critical and popular failure (sayeth the New York Times: in many ways [VAMPYR] was one of the worst films I have ever attended" and that "[it] either held the spectators spellbound as in a long nightmare or else moved them to hysterical laughter") which was not recognized as a classic until many decades hence.

As it is, it remains a phantasmagorical spectacular, sharing common ground with latter-day dream ballets like VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS and ERASERHEAD. It's not plot-heavy in a traditional sense, but rather builds a wispily tangible mood, one that brushes your shoulders, pricks up the hairs on the back of your neck, and slips between your fingers in frosty, feathery tendrils. VAMPYR embodies the dream state, blurs the lines between nightly rest and eternal rest, and, at its best, places the viewer themselves in a trance-like condition. (Dreyer had his cinematographer, the brilliant Rudolph Maté, shoot most of the film with a thin gauze blocking the lens from a distance of three feet to really drive the haziness home!) With Wolfgang Zeller's softly flowing score, frequent title cards, and long stretches of silence, VAMPYR feels at times like a silent film, but in saying so, I don't wish to downplay the effect of the seriously spooky soundscape, full of screeching birds, howling monkeys (?), metallic grindings, and mysterious echoes.

Though it would be impossible to spoil VAMPYR's myriad secrets with mere words, the remander of this review shall, like the film, take on something of an abstract quality...

Wheels spin, gears crank, shadows turn.

A peasant (or is that the Grim Reaper?) rings a bell incessantly on a fog-enshrouded dock, a scythe ominously slung over his shoulder.

An arrangement of skulls fix their empty-socketed glares upon the camera lens.

Julian West's eyes bulge with mortal dread.

Skeletal fingers clutch a vial of poison. Sybille Schmitz leers with an animal madness that puts today's overproduced, fang-reliant vampires to shame.

Shadows disobey their masters.

In-camera effects rule the day. The staking of a vampire is described quite elegantly as "nailing her horrid soul to the earth." A man chokes on a savage downpour of flour in the most difficult-to-watch asphyxiation scene until BLUE COLLAR.

Our hero is buried alive (or is that really the case?), and we see, via his point-of-view, a series of sights leading up to his interment which comprise, in my opinion, one of the most immersive, tour de force cinematographical sequences in all of filmdom.

For me, anyway, this is horror cinema at its finest. Shadowy, nebulous visions from the pit, a few of which (the burial sequence, for example) resonate as forbidden sights that perhaps the living ought never to see...

Just about five stars.

-Sean Gill

No comments: