The best horror films resemble dreams, and the best dream-like horror films come from the 1920s and 1930s.
One can’t get through a screening of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS or NOSFERATU without being marked. Tod Browning’s DRACULA remains powerful to this very day for its stagey qualities, which deeply infuse it with a nightmare tone that makes it feel hyper-real. While there are plenty of down-to-Earth visceral horror films from the ’20s and ’30s, the local trends skewed toward this hyper-reality, and a near-experimental, expressionistic approach to horror. It was an exciting time.
One of the more dizzying — and dizzyingly awesome — films of the 1930s was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film VAMPYR, an expressionistic, near-theological meditation on the vampire myth, fear, and the nature of evil.
VAMPYR is visually amazing, deeply surreal, and philosophically unsettling. It’s also difficult to understand. Finally, many decades later, this classic is getting its due: the time has come, on its 85th birthday, to appreciate this awesome, weird work once again.
To offer some background: Carl Theodor Dreyer, born in Denmark, and often working in Denmark, France, and Germany, was one of the masters of the silent era. He was a cinematic theologian, often exploring the depths and the ambivalence of a life of faith; he was no doubt influenced by the theological writings of Søren Kierkegaard. He began his journalistic career writing and translating title cards for silent films, which eventually evolved into writing screenplays. Dreyer directed his first film in 1919, and was interested in realism as an aesthetic ethos. One of his early films was called LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK, a realistic drama about Satan wandering the Earth.
When his early films weren’t successful, he went to France and started tooling around with the likes of Jean Cocteau — who, no doubt, began guiding him more toward the surreal. In 1928, Dreyer would eventually make THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC — one of the best films of all time. Using the actual transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial, he made an intensely realistic rendition of the woman’s final few days. It was so realistic, in fact, that it almost becomes expressionistic unto itself.
And while PASSION is taught in film schools today, it wasn’t a “hit” at the time, and Dreyer struggled to secure funds for his next project. Luckily, he was able to find a German financier and made VAMPYR in 1932. The result is his most ambitious film to date.
Partially based on an 1872 collection of ghost stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, VAMPYR takes place in a small German town named Courtempierre, where the denizens all seem to be living under a bizarre, nightmarish curse. A traveling young man named Allan Grey arrives in Courtempierre and is immediately swept up a series of bizarre occurrences: He explores a castle that seems to be ruled by shadows, and he sees a local old man get murdered by gunshot. When he tries to aid the man, he is instead asked to stay in the castle. After encountering the felled man’s daughters, he comes to the conclusion that vampires live in the area. Allan must eventually find the source of the vampire curse, fight dark visions, and drive an iron bar through a vampire’s heart.
VAMPYR’s visuals are as far from realism as one may hope to find, and still feel unique to this day. Dreyer made sure that everything was soft, and dreamlike; indeed, the visuals are so hazy, one can hardly make out some of the large, weird interiors of the castles and buildings; this lends them a faraway, abstract quality. It’s as if the characters don’t exist in real space — when Allan gets lost in the streets, or begins to see visions of himself being buried alive, they have a half-in-half-out-of-reality quality, as if they are indeed happening, but are also being dreamed.
Maybe it’s simply because of my own personal tastes, but films that capture fear in the abstract are always more powerful than the ones that give it a palpable object — films like ERASERHEAD or THE SHINING, which bank on anxiety and abstract, unspoken dread, will always be more terrifying than something like, say, FRIDAY THE 13TH. VAMPYR does indeed deal with the now-well-worn vampire tropes, and it does end with a vampire being staked… but it attempts to explore why vampires should be feared in the first place. It’s not because they will do you bodily harm; it’s because they are so evil that they essentially unjoint time. The cloud of fear a vampire creates can permeate the very walls of every building in an entire city. They are not simply something to be feared — they are fear.
VAMPYR wasn’t received well upon its release, as audiences perhaps didn’t understand the extreme style. Dreyer wasn’t confident in its making, either — he was dealing with sound for the very first time, and perhaps unsure as to how to incorporate dialogue into something that was gaining traction from being quiet. He split the difference and included intertitles and a few moments of actual dialogue. Both were equally weird and abstract. Dreyer ended up re-cutting the film several times to see if audiences would catch on… but they never did. VAMPYR was a financial failure.
Dreyer wouldn’t make another film for over a decade. His return, however, would be the politically hot DAY OF WRATH — a film about 17th-century witch trials that was clearly a metaphor for Nazi occupation. He would also make the amazing ORDET in 1955 (about a Lutheran priest who starts to believe that he is Jesus Christ), and GERTRUD (a film about an opera singer who surmises she has no regrets) in 1962. Sadly, he was never able to realize his dream project: a realistic drama about Jesus Christ Himself. Dreyer is well remembered in the 1995 documentary film CARL TH. DREYER: MY METIER.
Dreyer is well-known to film students and scholars of world cinema, and most of his films are studied and pored over extensively. But his one foray into horror may remain his most striking aesthetic experiment, and could even be considered his most out-of-character film. It’s also, simply speaking, a terrifying experience: Watch it late at night with the lights out, and you won’t be sure if you dreamed it or not. VAMPYR is a moving and shattering film that reminds you why we come back to vampires — and to horror — time and time again. It’s not about the rules, about the mechanics, about the trite and banal everyday approach to the supernatural, but instead delves into how evil, fearful, and abstract these monsters truly are. For Dreyer, the monsters were alive in all of us.
Watch it. Watch it alone.