Halloween Endurance Test: Vampyr (1932)

Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) is a film I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I first caught a glimpse of it in a Film Criticism course I took in college; my professor teasing us with a sample of an early vampire film with sound before making us watch Jonah Who Will Be 25 In the Year 2000. I know, the audacity! I had my revenge though, when my analysis of Jonah… centered around cocaine, Disney’s made-for-TV movie Smart House, and hurling insults at my classmates. For those interested, I received an A in the course.

Since Vampyr was one of the earliest vampire films made with sound, it plays out much the same as a silent film would. This choice to promote the visual over the audial was more of a logistical concern than a technological one; as the film was recorded in three different languages. So, to cut down on recording time, Dreyer used title cards to carry the plot, and keep dialogue to a minimum.

Vampyr’s plot is mainly a retelling of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” taken from his collection, In a Glass Darkly; rounded out with a few bits and pieces from other tales. Centering on the story of Allan Gray (Julian West), a man preoccupied with studying “devil worship and vampires.” Allan’s arrival on-screen makes two things abundantly clear when the film begins:

#1.) Ghost hunting has come a long way since the 30s! Modern dorks carry digital cameras to photograph “ectoplasm,” EMF meters to measure magnetic disturbances, and night vision goggles ‘cuz it’s fun to see in the dark. Back in ’32 all poor Allan Gray had was an over-sized butterfly net. Clearly counting on any vampire he’d meet to be in bat-form.

#2.) Dreyer sure likes to move his camera around. Constantly following the actors around, you’ll notice the stark contrast here between Vampyr and its more famous, and more static German predecessor, Nosferatu. You’re almost never bored, as something is always happening on the screen, or waiting for a title card to explain the action.

Awakened at night by an old man barging into his room, Allan is warned that he “must not let her die” and handed a package that is not to be opened until after the old man’s death. Things get weirder after Allan wakes up, as he sees the shadow of a soldier waling around the inn. Following it, the soldier’s shadow soon leads Allan to a shadow jazz band playing in the attic!

(I guess “trick camera shots” should technically be #3 on my “attention grabbing” list. Dreyer uses a lot of shadow projection and negative processing to give the film a supernatural feel.)

The old man promptly dies, leaving Allan in charge of a book about vampires. Why the man didn’t just casually mention that there were vampires around, we’ll never know. Nor why Allan, a scholar of the occult, would need such a book in the first place. And soon after the old man dies, a young girl starts suffering night terrors.

Through the book we also learn that if a young victim is drained by a vampire, they’ll return to feed on the rest of their family. Making this a threat to the entire village, similar to the Wurdalak segment in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath.

Interesting that in this story, vampires don’t kill their victims, rather they drive them to suicide. So that the victim’s soul goes to Hell, and thus can be reanimated by Satan. Also, wooden stakes are out, as an iron one is needed, the stronger metal working better to nail their “horrid [vampire] souls to the Earth.”

Fearing that his young charge only has one more night to live, Allan cleverly donates enough of his blood to her to both: a.) keep the girl alive, and b,) place himself on the vampire’s radar. He passes out only to discover that he’s in the realm of the ghosts when he awakes.

Allan uses this opportunity to follow the other ghosts around; thus spying which grave the vampire calls “home.” (The vampire guidebook having clued Allan in that the ghosts found everywhere are actually the vampire’s servants.) Re-entering the land of the living, Allan grabs the groundskeeper and a giant, iron stake and sends the vampire back to hell.

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