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Made the same year as the film Dracula (1931), Vampyr, having been forgotten by all but the most devoted students of the horror genre, has nevertheless been regarded by some critics of classical horror films as the best such motion picture ever made. Vampyr was produced and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, who also, with the assistance of Christen Jul, wrote the script. The film was purportedly modeled on Sheridan Le Fanu‘s “Carmilla”, but the only similarity seems to be Dreyer’s use of a female vampire.
The film opens with David Gray (played by Julian West) arriving in a European village only to discover that a room had already been booked for him at the local inn. That evening he was visited by an old man (Maurice Schultz) who gave him a package to be opened in case of his death. After the man mysteriously disappeared, Gray wondered if it was all a dream, although he still possessed the package. Unable to sleep, he went for a walk. He followed a disconnected shadow that led him to the local manor house. There he met the man, who turned out to be the owner of the mansion, and one of his daughters, Gisele (Rena Mandel). While Gray visited with Schultz, the latter was shot and killed. Gray then learned that Schultz’s other daughter, Leone (Sybille Schmitz), was manifesting some strange symptoms. Upon opening the package after Schultz was shot, Gray found a book on vampires. Leone, who had been wandering about in her sleep, was discovered out on the grounds with an old woman, Margueritte Chopin (Henriette Gerard), hovering over her. Because Leone had lost a lot of blood, Gray offered her a transfusion of his own blood. While giving the transfusion Gray had an hallucination in which he was being buried alive. Through a window in the coffin he saw the old woman’s face staring at him. He realized that she was a vampire and that a doctor he had met earlier was her assistant. After the hallucination, he awakened in the local cemetery. Accompanied by a servant from the manor house, he found the old woman’s grave, and together they killed her by staking her with an iron pole. The spirits of those whom she had killed then arose to attack and kill the vampire’s human cohorts, including the doctor.
Carl Dreyer (the film’s producer and director) was known for his artistic attention to a mood of terror rather than any graphic presentation of horrific action. In Vampyr he slowly developed an environment that was supernatural and disjointed and in which the vampire’s presence was strongly felt but rarely seen. The terror was suggested early, especially as Gray followed the shadow, which led him to a place where more disconnected shadows dance to some loud music. The old woman appeared, and as she raised her arms and demanded quiet, the music suddenly stopped.
To add even more to the atmosphere of total terror, Dreyer also had the picture filmed with some light leaking into the camera, thus producing a foggy quality on the finished film. To enhance the exact quality he wanted in the characters, Dreyer recruited non-actors to play the various roles. Only Sybille Schmitz and Maurice Schultz were professionals. Dreyer allowed the film’s plot to develop slowly, thus inviting viewers to participate in the film through their imagination. In the face of competing horror epics, however, the effect was to leave most audiences bored and to deny the film commercial success. Dreyer’s artistic accomplishment was understood and appreciated by very few. In the United States, a condensed version of the film, with a voice-over narration, was issued as the Castle of Doom, but it too failed to attract a significant audience.
A DVD copy of Vampyr was issued in 2008 in the Criterion Collection, a series of classic and contemporary films, published using the best technical advancements along with original supplements. In this case, the two-disc set included a 1958 radio broadcast of Dreyer reading an essay about filmmaking, a documentary by Jörgen Roos on Dreyer’s career, an essay by Casper Tybjerg about influences on Dreyer’s Vampyr, and a supplemental book of essays on the film.
The Vampyre Society see: Vampire Fandom: United Kingdom