Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Nightmare On Film

Director: Carl Dreyer
Cast: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel

Is there a more apt way to describe this classic than by that title? No other film really captures the atmosphere and incoherent logic of a dream than this film. Director Carl Dreyer made this movie as a reaction to the success of Dracula and Frankenstein, which were filmed around the same time. The approach is vastly different and creates a picture that is the very definition of an acquired taste. There's not much of a plot and little to no characterization, but the spooky images and atmosphere and entirely unique and make this a one of a kind movie experience. Few films carry with it the sense of dread and decay as does Vampyr.

The film's narrative involves a young man named Allan Grey(Julian West), who is wandering around the countryside near a small european village where several strange images greet him including a ferryman who appears ringing a bell like the image of death and a creepy deformed old man in a sailor outfit! Allan stays in a hotel and is awakend one night by an old man seeking help, mumbling about a girl who was about to die. Allan discovers that a supernatural killer is stalking the countryside and appears to be the work of a vampire. Henriette Gerard portrays the old vampire woman and is very effective doing very little. It appears that she has been slowly feeding on a youg woman(Sybille Schmitz) with the aid of a town doctor(Jan Hierominko). The narrative is very muddled, but the images that follow linger quite a while after viewing them. Shadowy spirits dance in the night to music which the vampire witch shouts to stop. Skulls and skeletons appear to come to life in the doctor's office and the most famous moment occurs when Allan imagines himself at his own funeral! Eventually, the vampire is destroyed in her coffin by a huge spike through the heart in a truly great macabre moment as she turns into a skeleton. The Doctor is buried alive in flour in an old windmill and Allan and a young woman named Gisele(Rena Mandel) walk away through the forest and away from the nightmare.

Vampyr is one uneasy moviegoing experience. As one can tell from my synopsis, this is not the easiest film to follow, nor was it meant to be. It's abstract cinema and one of the few examples of arthouse horror, bred no less in the golden age when the genre was still in it's infancy. The film does not work as a narrative, but as a series of haunting images, it's equal to none. Noted film historians William K. Everson and Carlos Clarens praised the hell out of this film, both decreeing it the finest horror film ever made. It may not hold that lofty of a title, but it is one of the most frightening and disturbing. Dreyer, who had previously helmed the brilliant, The Passion of Joan of Arc(1928), really understands the nuances of the camera and does his best to highlight the shadows and darkness of his supernatural world. Much like Murnau and Nosferatu, the shadows act like characters in themselves and play an integral part to the film's atmosphere. The dancing shadows, whether spirits or actual persons, is eerie as is the shadow of the night watchman's spirit that performs tasks for the vampire. The doctor's office with skulls and poison are bizarre as is that moment when Allan sees himself in his own coffin. To add to the strangeness, the film was shot in various languages and very little of the dialouge is decipherable and audible. So, the picture looks and feels like a silent with a mixture of limited dialouge and odd background noises, again reminiscent of a nightmare. Dreyer also shot several sequences through gauze and that gave the film a dreamlike haze, missing from so many other horror flicks.

The film was supposdely based on Carmilla by Sheridan La Fanu, but little of that story's subtle eroticism and youthful energy is apparent, save for the appearance of a female vampire. Several vampire films would follow Vampyr but seemingly none borrowed much from it. Dreyer did not make many films and could scarcely find backing. It was actor Julian West who financed this film and only so he could be the lead! Vampyr was re-discovered in the 1960s and gained a strong following among the arthouse crowd and classic horror buffs who wished for something different, which they certainly got from this. Lacking the sexuality and romanticism of so many vampire movies, Vampyr is like it's own little island in the world of the undead. Unlike so many other contemporary products, we never really even feel that evil has been vanquished from the evil, despite witnessing the vampire's destruction. The young people escape, but the terror still lurks behind them, waiting for the shadows to engulf the world once again or maybe for the protagonist to wake up. We're never quite sure what to believe, except that there's something truly terrible in that small village and we'd never want to visit it even in our worst nightmares. It's not for all tastes, but this is for it's atmosphere alone, one of the top fifty horror films ever made. Criterion released a DVD of this a few years back and for all serious buffs, I consider this a must have. Just hope you don't have any nightmares.

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