Vampyr (1932)

AUGUST 5, 2008


I don’t have enough German movies in the Horror Movie A Day canon. Let’s fix that. When recommending films, please consider our friends in Hamburg.

Anyway, a friend let me borrow Vampyr, which I had never even heard of until he handed it to me. It starts off similar to Dracula, what with a young man arriving at a spooky house in the middle of nowhere, but then it goes off on a completely different direction. And that direction is utter batshit confusion. But it’s also quite good, which is nice.

Despite being filmed in 1930, it has a surprisingly high number of complex shots and special effects. There is an amazing tracking shot about halfway through the film, which starts by looking out a window, and then tracking back out of the room, turning, going down the hall, and finally ending on a pair of characters who then speak some dialogue. It’s the type of complex shot you don’t often see in older films, since back then the very idea of making a film at all seemed to be enough for most filmmakers. And the effects are pretty impressive as well; one character is essentially a ghost for the entire final act, so we see through him as he travels about the house and sharing shots with fully massed characters.

There is also a truly unnerving sequence of a guy dreaming about his own funeral. His coffin has a little window right above his head, and we watch his point of view as the casket is taken toward the grave. It’s creepy as hell.

Bits like that are enough to make up for the lack of a coherent story. I really couldn’t tell you what the hell was going on half the time, but the atmosphere and creepy feel the film had made the story lapses easier to deal with. It’s not like a Lynch film where the incoherency eventually leads to just plain ol’ lack of interest (Inland Empire, anyone?), but it’s a very loose narrative, with little traditional structural qualities (three acts, character arcs, etc). Lynch may have even seen the film himself; there are characters who seemingly split into two, oddball dream sequences, etc. On the commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns (hey, how do you get to be considered a film scholar? I think I’m one, at least for slasher movies), he even points out a similarity to Twin Peaks, but I forget what it was (maybe if I had seen more than 2 episodes I could be a bit more privy on the matter). I’m sure he’s right though, he’s a scholar.

He IS off on a Buffy reference though. During a scene where a vampire is staked, he points out that this is 7/10ths of a century before Joss Whedon and Buffy. Actually, since the film is from 1932, it would be exactly 6/10ths (or 3/5ths, if you want to simplify the fraction) of a century, as the Buffy film was released in 1992. Some scholar. He also has no idea why the movie is spelled the way it is (made all the more odd when there is frequent text screens which spell it the “correct” wrong way: Vampyre.

The Criterion release is a combination/restoration from battered existing prints. I don’t envy whoever had to assemble a complete print from God knows how many different sources, but it looks like a good job. The only real issue is that whenever the movie cuts to an exterior, the film is overly grainy and also blurry, resulting in “What the hell am I looking at here?” levels of quality. I don’t know if that was always the case, or if all exteriors just happened to come from a lousy print, but either way it’s kind of annoying, because the rest of it looks shockingly good for a 75+ year old movie.

Criterion has also supplied the film with an unusually high number of extras. In addition to the commentary (as usual, not by anyone involved with the film), there are two 30 minute extras, one about director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s career, and the other about the development/creation of the film itself. There is also a radio broadcast, but I didn’t listen to that. But that’s just the stuff on the DVDs. There is also a 60 page booklet with some essays and such, plus a pretty interesting account of the restoration process. On top of that, there is ANOTHER book that includes the screenplay and the short story Carmilla that Vampyr is sort of based on. I didn’t read the short story, but the screenplay is a good read; not only does it make some story details a bit more clear, but it’s also just amusing to read a “screenplay” that is essentially a short story itself. Since the film is rather short on dialogue, there will be pages of just “action”, which includes the character’s thoughts and things like that, stuff not usually found in a screenplay. Score another for German efficiency!

It’s rare I watch anything from Criterion, and that is a shame. Some might scoff at the idea of a horror movie being given the Criterion treatment, but that is because there is a common misconception of what the company does. They aren’t out to simply release the greatest movies of all time (though in my opinion, they have done just that – for Halloween and Armageddon), but simply to present great examples of each genre (and subgenre). Theoretically, once the Psychlos come to our planet for resources and try to learn more about us, they could use the entire output of Criterion and get a pretty close to complete history of cinema, albeit in generalized terms. So yes, Armageddon deserves a Criterion release, because like it or not, it’s a great way to demonstrate the idea of excessive MTV style popcorn movies. But yet, for horror they are pretty picky, despite all of the subgenres, there are probably less than a dozen horror films in the company’s history, with some long out of print (the DVD of Halloween is from Anchor Bay, not Criterion). Long story short: it’s nice to see them putting this much effort into a horror movie. Quality over quantity!

What say you?

P.S. - Below is the entire movie, not the trailer. I don't know if its the same print/subtitle that I watched, or how someone got a 73 minute clip onto Youtube, but there you go.


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