Saturday, 23 July 2011

Retro review: Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr - The Strange Adventure of Allan Gray was directed by the legendary Carl Theodor Dreyer, who had made the silent classics The Passion of Joan Of Arc (1928) and Leaves From Satan's Book (1921). Vampyr was made as a silent film, but had occasional dialogue added later. As such there is very little dialogue, and most of the exposition is provided by on screen captions - and since this is a German movie, these are subtitled, so you need to read fast!

Allan Gray (Julian West - actually Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, the film's financier) stays at a remote ch√Ęteau and is disturbed at night by a strange old man who tells him" we must save her" and leaves a package, to be opened on his death. There's an equally strange doctor (who looks like he was a heavy influence on Professor Abronsius in Polanksi's Fearless Vampire Killers) who is given a bottle of poison by a woman. After the old man's death, Gray opens his package and starts to read the book that it contained. It tells the story of vampires, and evil in villages throughout time, and how these vampires had cursed families for generations.

Rather than try and explain the story, it is best to just say - the whole thing is a work of art. Every frame of the film. Technically the film is way ahead of it's time, shadows dominate. The camera work is sweeping, naturalist and stunning. The whole sense of menace and horror is eerily provided by these techniques. There is a peg legged shadow that climbs some steps to meet it's owner sat on a bench. Scenes are purposely over exposed.

It is a poetic and beautiful film, as much as it is terrifying. It is your worst dream in celluloid. It is the 1930s equivalent of Eraserhead. It's imagery will linger in your mind long after you watch, and to a certain degree, with cinematography and visions like those on display it doesn't matter if you follow the story. In all fairness though, it isn't as incoherent as some reviews would have you believe.

I first say Vampyr in the tatty, more washed out than it should be print that screened on Channel 4 in the early 80s, when they did their own version of the horror double bill, and it had a profound effect even back then. It's nice then to be able to see the version that is now available I watched the one put out by Eureka in the UK, and it's a fantastic package. The film still has some print flaws, but nothing like the ones seen in the past. It also includes two commentaries, one by Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, which is very interesting and shows that the man has a passion for the film too. Vampyr should be required viewing for anyone interested in the history of horror and fantasy films, it's right up there with Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari.
10 out of 10                        

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