Vampyr Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of Vampyr

In 1931, Carl Theodor Dreyer, a Danish director of daunting reputation (not least for being the spiritual ancestor of the equally heavyweight likes of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky), made one of the cinema’s great one-offs, and a film unlike almost anything else in the horror genre. Vampyr was made at the turn of the 1930s, at a time when European cinema was cautiously moving from the silent to the sound era. Though it has its own soundtrack, it’s clear that it still harks back to an earlier time: dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum, and much of what there is is too banal to need subtitling.

Young traveller Allan Gray (played by the film’s financier Nicolas de Gunzburg under the pseudonyn “Julian West”) becomes involved with two sisters, both of whom appear to be under the malign influence of a strange, androgynous elderly figure and the local doctor. One sister is dying from an unknown illness, while the other appears to be possessed.

And that’s not all: during his travels around the vicinity, Gray witnesses a one-legged man whose shadow doesn’t always do his bidding, a sinister figure bearing a scythe, a demonic orgy depicted only through shadow, a slow, suffocating death in the nearby mill under tons of flour, and a horrific first-person dream about his own funeral (one of the weirdest and most authentically creepy scenes ever filmed).

It’s a slow, dreamlike experience that’s at the opposite end of the horror spectrum to the likes of Scream. Nothing makes coherent narrative sense, the dialogue is softly-spoken to the point of inaudibility, and the hazy images made up of multiple shades of grey rather than the stark black and white favoured by the genre at the time (Dreyer and cameraman Rudolph Maté hit on this look by accident after some rushes were processed incorrectly by mistake, and decided to adopt it for the whole film).

Dreyer claimed he wanted “to create a daydream on the screen and to show that the horrific is not to be found around us but in our own unconscious mind”, and in terms of creating images that resonate in the mind’s eye long after the rest of the film has been forgotten, he certainly succeeded. Few other horror films have quite as sure a grasp of the uncanny as Vampyr, and though Dreyer never made another, his position as one of the masters of the genre is secure.

The print on the DVD is the German version – Dreyer also shot a French version at the same time (this was before dubbing had been established), and it might have been nice to have included that version as well, not least because two other great vampire films have had similar treatment (Universal’s 1931 Dracula, Anchor Bay’s version of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre). That said, at 72 minutes, this print is the longest I’ve come across to date – a notch ahead of the Channel Four print, and considerably longer than Redemption’s VHS release, though some sources I have claim that the film originally ran as long as 80 minutes.

It’s very hard to rate the DVD for picture and sound quality in any meaningful way. By any normal objective standards, both are abysmal: the print is riddled with spots, scratches, splices and occasionally more serious damage, while the digital transfer visibly struggles with Dreyer’s subtle palette of soft greys, leading to pronounced artefacting affecting almost every shot. The sound is even worse – fuzzy and indistinct, and presented at a very low volume (and turning it up does not help!).

There are other eccentricities: the film appears to be framed at the original 4:3, but there’s a thin border running around the entire frame, and the subtitles are truly gigantic, taking up half the picture when they appear, and not helped by being in an ornate Gothic typeface – though, to be fair, this is a relatively minor problem considering the extreme scarcity of spoken dialogue. At least Image haven’t skimped on the chapter stops – there’s a generous eighteen of them.

But the bottom line is that this still manages to be the best version of the film I’ve seen to date – the first time I saw it, in a mid-1980s Channel Four screening, the continuity announcer apologised for the state of the print! As with that other great German vampire film Nosferatu, it seems that the original negative and other first-generation printing materials vanished decades ago, and short of a major rediscovery, this is about as good as it’s likely to get. That said, the best surviving print of Dreyer’s earlier The Passion of Joan of Arc turned up in a Norwegian mental hospital in the 1980s, so there’s still hope!

There’s only one extra, but it’s a very welcome and indeed unexpected one: Wladyslaw Starewicz’ 26-minute short film The Mascot (1934). Starewicz is a somewhat shadowy figure even among serious animation fans – although his importance in cinema history as the father of stop-motion animation is incontestable, in practice his work has been extremely hard to come by until surprisingly recently (his only feature, the jaw-dropping The Tale of the Fox, didn’t receive its British premiere until 1993, some sixty years late!). There’s still a huge amount of undiscovered Starewicz out there, so I’m very grateful to Image Entertainment for taking the trouble to preserve one of his films on DVD.

The Mascot charts the bizarre journey taken by a small puppet dog – the mascot of the title – as he decides to strike out on his own after realising his sick owner can no longer care for him (her mother’s tears bring him to life in the first place). After a series of adventures with various other species, he gets caught in a thunderstorm that leads to an alarmingly vivid evocation of a black sabbath involving devils, witches and animated bird and fish skeletons (anyone familiar with the work of Czech stop-motion genius Jan Svankmajer – especially his feature-length Alice – will feel right at home here!).

Considering that the film, like all Starewicz’ other films, was essentially a one-man show (he was assisted by his daughters, but otherwise made his films virtually single-handed, right down to playing the part of the policeman himself), it’s an astonishing piece of work, with the animation impressively smooth even by today’s computer-aided standards. And in terms of character animation, he’s comfortably up to the standard set by other stop-motion giants such as Willis O’Brien (King Kong), Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) or Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) despite the far more primitive equipment he had to work with.

The quality of both print and especially sound are slightly better than is on offer with Vampyr, but it’s still not going to win any prizes: it’s noticeably grainy and has plenty of spots and scratches. The sound is still very much on the fuzzy side, though it’s an appreciable improvement both in terms of volume and definition. But, as with Vampyr, this is very much a case of being grateful for having the film on DVD at all!

[Since Criterion have announced that they’ll be releasing their own version of Vampyr during 2002, my advice is to wait and see what that’s like – on the evidence of their other Dreyer titles plus their stunning version of Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, my guess is that it’ll be a very clear first choice]

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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