When Carl Theodor Dryer set out to make VAMPYR in 1930 his goal was to make a commercial film. Fully two years after the theatrical release and subsequent failure of Dryer’s epic silent film THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC the Danish filmmaker was unable to find funding for his next project within the studio system. Taking cue from recent productions like Jean Cocteau’s BLOOD OF A POET and the Dalí/Buñuel collaboration L’ÂGE D’OR, Dryer finally secured financing from a wealthy aristocrat. In the case of VAMPYR the backer turned out to be Baron Nicholas de Gunzberg. De Gunzberg—who would adopt the name Julian West—had only one request, to star in the production. Dryer himself would be credited as Producer.
When one approaches VAMPYR—Dryer’s first taking picture—it’s interesting to note how little dialogue is actually present in the film. Indeed, the film employs the old silent film title cards to establish the essence of the place and the plot. Later these cards are replaced by pages from a book of vampire lore in order to facilitate the history, legend and myth of the monster, as well as offering clues as to where to locate the creature and how to destroy it. The actual dialogue that is spoken on screen offers little insight into character motivations and situations. The reason behind this is simply one of practicality as Dryer shot the film for release in three languages: German, French and English. The film itself was shot as a silent film with the dialogue later dubbed in. This attributes for the breath of movement Dryer coaxes from the camera—early talking pictures were notoriously static due to the immobility of the recording equipment. Of these three versions only the German and French editions survive.
After the production was completed, the film was shelved by its German distributor for nearly a year in order to make way for Universal Studio’s productions of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. For Dryer this was a difficult time. His exhaustion led to a nervous breakdown and he was subsequently admitted to a mental hospital—ironically named La Clinique Jeanne D’Arc. Ultimately, Dryer would not make another film for 10-years.
When VAMPYR debuted on May 6, 1932 it was clear that the audience was not prepared for what the filmmaker was offering—and so Carl Dryer’s purposeful attempt to create a commercial success was once again met with box office failure.
Upon viewing VAMPYR it’s easy to see how audiences who had already been primed in vampire lore with F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Expressionist masterpiece NOSFERATU and Tod Browning’s immortal DRACULA would have been left confused by Dryer’s film. It contains none of the terror of Murnau and none of the romance of Browning. Further, VAMPYR is structurally demanding of it’s audience—offering a nightmare state of fractured storylines and even fractured characters (at one point Julian West’s protagonist Allan Gray physically splits into three separate entities in order to solve a mystery and speculate on his own potential fate).
VAMPYR is more of a mystery thriller than a horror film—the story of Allan Gray, a traveler who arrives in the village of Courtempierrre outside of Paris where he encounters a barrage of unexplained phenomena. Upon checking into the local inn, he immediately encounters an old man who enters his locked bedroom and alarms Allan with news of his and his daughters impending death. Is this man real? A ghost? The astral projection of a soul? None of these questions are clearly answered in the scene. The ghost leaves a package behind with the express written instruction “To be opened upon my death”. Outside Allan uncovers many more strange happenings. Shadows cavort across the landscape—sometimes in reverse. Inside an old mill they dance independently from corporeal bodies across the walls. Later—in one instance—a peg-legged shadow even returns to the body of a resting musketeer. The entirety of the village grounds are blanketed in a dense fog of white and farmers with scythes board boats like ferrymen on the river Styx. When Allan discovers a Chateau nearby he learns that the man who visited his room and his daughters live there—but he is too late in arriving and the shadow of the musketeer has killed the old man. Now, the daughter is missing—possibly a victim of the legendary vampire that roams the area. With the assistance of the Chateau’s servant, Allan must discover the terrible truth hidden in the village graveyard and save the daughter’s souls from damnation.
As I mentioned before, Dryer’s film is visually arresting. That the dialogue is so Spartan and unimportant allows the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the world he has created. It’s a visual, psychological and emotional journey into the heart of a nightmare—logic, linear progression and reason all fall by the wayside. The camera angles are sometimes garish and antagonistic. The editing is choppy and confusing. Character motivation is unclear and the overwhelming sense of dread is disconcerting. Together these factors combine to create a truly important and amazingly engrossing film. Unfortunately it is also because of these attributes that many, if not most viewers will find VAMPYR infinitely frustrating and disconcertingly coy.
Still, despite the issues that VAMPYR faced when it was initially released—and still faces today—like THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Dryer’s visual storytelling sense, expert cinematography and unique eye are what makes the films amongst the most celebrated and momentous productions of early European Cinema—virtually cementing Dryer’s place in cinematic history. Dryer would go on to direct only 4 other feature films before his death in 1968—winning awards (including the Golden Globe in 1955 for ORDET) and acclaim from some of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES
VAMPYR arrives—like Dryer’s other films—courtesy of the Criterion Collection. And like all Criterion DVDs, this 2-disc special edition will likely represent the definitive version of this landmark film.
DISC ONE—includes the German restoration of VAMPYR from 1998, including lost footage—culled from the French version of the film—that was cut by German censors before the 1932 premiere. It is hardly without wear, tear and fading but compared with clips seen in previous documentaries the picture is remarkably well preserved considering its general disregard at the original time of release.
In addition to the German/French reconstruct the disc contains a specially created English Text version of the film to supplant the “lost” English version. To clarify this it would be pertinent to remind you about those title cards I mentioned before. As most of the film’s exposition is written in large swaths throughout, the production provides a distinct difficulty in subtitling. If you want to understand what I mean, simply put on the German version and try to read the white subtitles while the written white text is filling every available inch of the screen. Even purists like me will be quickly switching versions! Happily, and as not to offend the initial restoration too deeply, the spoken dialogue in the English Text version is still in German with subtitles in English. Not that it really matters in the grand scheme of things—considering the film’s original multi-language releasing structure.
This disc also contains the Audio Commentary from Film Scholar Tony Rayns. Rayns provides a very studious and sometimes dry overview of the production, pre and post, along with anecdotes about the making of the film and the subsequent release. Additionally Rayns gives us speculation and consideration into Dryer’s motivations on screen. For those of you already enamored of VAMPYR’s charms, Rayns insights, hypotheses and astute observations will be particularly interesting. If you don’t already love the film odds are you won’t want to sit through the audio commentary anyway. However if the film leaves you completely lost you might want to give it a spin as Rayns does an admirable job of filling in a few gaps along the way.
DISC TWO—provides the bulk of the special features on display here including CARL TH. DRYER (30:00)—a 1966 documentary by Danish filmmaker Jørgen Roos who worked with Dryer on several short films later in his career. This documentary covers Dryer’s career and discusses details about the production from the casting and location scouting (the entire film was shot in real locations, no soundstages were employed) including how the discovery of one location ultimately affected the entire look of the film and significantly altered the fate of one character. Film enthusiasts—specifically those of French Cinema will want to see and hear what New Wave luminary François Truffaut (THE 400 BLOWS) and genre master Henri-Georges Clouzot (DIABOLIQUE)have to say about Dryer as they attend the premiere of his final film GERTRUD.
A VISUAL ESSAY (36:00) by University of Copenhagen professor Casper Tybjerg deconstructs the film, providing additional insight into the production as well as the many influences that Dryer used in creating the production. The ESSAY is told in voice over as the stills and clips illustrate the points on screen in what is truly the highlight of the supplements.
Dryer himself makes an appearance on Disc Two in an archival radio broadcast from 1958 where the filmmaker reads an essay about filmmaking on the program The Film Art (23:32). In this commentary, Dryer characterizes his personal philosophy of cinema and the language of film. What this broadcast really does is offer the listener a film school style lecture from which one can momentary step inside the masters mind and look at the inner workings of how Dryer approaches his medium. It’s rare to ever here a filmmaker speak to these subjects today and even rarer to have to opportunity to listen first hand to these thoughts some 50 years later.
To cap off this amazing special edition, Criterion also provides a 214 page bound book which includes the complete screenplay for the film (including the original ending) as well as writer J. Sheridan La Fanu’s short story Carmilla from the collection In A Glass Darkly which is considered to be the most prominent influence on Dryer’s film. In addition to those items, the DVD also contains a separate booklet with essays on the film by critic Mark Le Fanu (Sight & Sound) and Kim Newman (Empire) as well as notes on the restoration by Martin Koerber. Finally the booklet contains the reprint of a 1964 interview with Baron Nicholas de Gunzberg from the publication Film Culture.
Given the wealth of information contained within these two discs and subsequent two books, it’s impossible to leave VAMPYR without an immense respect for its significance and contribution to the art of filmmaking. It might not make Dryer’s production any more accessible to the general movie going public but those of you willing to take this cinematic journey will certainly arrive at the end with a deeper appreciation of a man who spent the earliest part of his career redefining what cinema could do only to wait for decades before the rest of the world caught up and cared.