Though largely eluding popular acclaim while he was alive, Danish filmmaker
Carl Theodor Dreyer is now recognized as a master of early film.
His The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is one of the most moving
silent films ever made, and Day of Wrath (1943), made in Denmark
during the Nazi occupation, is a brooding and intense film that is one
of the best films to come out of Europe during that troubled time.
For the film after The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer chose to dabble
in the horror genre, which was quite popular at the time. The result
is Vampyr (1932), an avant-garde film that, while difficult to understand
on first viewing, is filled with the interesting images and moody atmosphere
that his films are noted for. Because of the unusual narrative style,
people searching for a straight vampire movie will likely be disappointed,
but those willing to let themselves be carried away by Dreyer's nightmare-like
film will be richly rewarded.
Allan Grey (Julian West) is a young man who has a healthy interest in
the occult and supernatural. While traveling across the countryside
he spends the night at an inn, and strange things start to happen.
An old man enters his room (or is it just a dream) and admonishes Allan
the "The girl mustn't die." The man then leaves him a parcel with
written instructions to only open it upon his death.
The next day Allan wanders away from the inn and discovers shadows that
are not cast by any figure...a one-legged soldier's shadow walks across a
room and climbs a ladder only to find it's human 'host' to join it once
more. A phantom band plays until a woman yells for them to be quite.
Allan follows a series of these odd shadows to an old castle where he discovers
the man who entered his room the night before, just in time to see him
The man's daughter is suffering from a strange case of anemia, and nothing
the doctor does improves her condition. Upon opening the box that
was left in his room, Allan discovers a book on vampires and how they operate.
After having an out of body experience while giving blood, Allan tries
to cure the area of the curse of the vampire.
I really, really like this film, but I'll be the first to admit that
it's not for everyone. It's often touted as a horror film, which
is very misleading. The film isn't so much horrific as it is eerie
and unsettling. It is filmed in soft focus and much of it has a dream-like
quality and the skewed logic that often occurs in dreams.
Dreyer scholar David Bordwell in his book The Films of Carl Theodor
Dreyer warns "the film is a very difficult one simply to follow."
That is very true. It plays more like an art film or experiment than
a narrative film. The plot is meandering, and it's hard to pin down
just what Allan is doing and what he is seeing. From a strictly narrative
point of view the film is very confusing. Take this exchange between
Allan and a doctor he encounters while exploring a strange house:
Doctor: Did you hear that?
Allan: Yes. The child.
Doctor: The child?
Allan: Yes, the child!
Doctor: There's no child here.
[long pause] Allan: But the dogs!
Doctor: There are no children or dogs here!
Doctor: No. Good night.
Allan: Good night.
It would be easy to write this film off as a series of unrelated events
that don't mean anything, except for the fact that there is a story buried
in the movie. Instead of playing with time to make the film more
obtuse (like Quentin Tarantino did in Pulp Fiction) however, Dreyer
simply presents scenes that Allan (and therefore the viewer) can not understand
for lack of context. In many cases (and this is one of the strokes
of genius of this film) he simply eliminates showing the cause of an event,
only the effect. The delivery of a vial of liquid to the doctor seems
innocuous enough, but when the reasons behind the delivery are uncovered
the scene makes sense and takes on a sinister meaning. As the movie
progresses the holes start to fill themselves in, and on subsequent viewings
the story presents itself much more clearly.
Many films aren't really worth putting that much effort into.
is different however because it is filled with eerie images that are beautiful
and haunting as well as ripe for interpretation. The image of a man
holding a scythe and climbing onto a small ferry seems innocent enough,
but it's hard not to think of him as death incarnate. Likewise the smile
of a sick girl seems sinister and evil. Dreyer masterfully
made the film worth watching even when the plot wasn't evident. When
the narrative has been discerned however, viewers realize that they are
watching a true master at work.
Filmed with an experimental sound system in the early days of the 'talkies',
the sound on this disc is about what you'd expect. The dynamic range
is very limited and the voices sound tinny and weak. The music is
likewise on the anemic side, and the score does not sound full and forceful.
On the positive side the soundtrack has been cleaned up and there isn't
any hiss or background noise to distract from the film. Given what
they had to work with, this is not a bad sounding track.
People familiar with the old Image release of this film will be very
pleased to hear that the Criterion release is a great improvement.
The Image release had a black bar at the bottom (presumably to blot out
the subtitles on the print they were using) where burned in subtitles appeared.
That's no longer a problem. This version presents the film without
that horrid bar and preserves the original aspect ratio of 1.19:1.
(The Image disc is cropped to 1.33:1.) The picture is much cleared
and more detailed than the Image version also.
That said, don't expect an immaculate print. First time viewers
are likely to be disappointed in the scratched and dirty print that is
very soft and indistinct (especially in the exterior scenes...it's better
in the interior shots) when compared to other films. There is a significant
amount of grain in the image too and it is often distracting.
The contrast is just average with black suits having no detail and the
details getting lost in the highlights on occasion. A lot of this
is the way Dreyer intended the film to look. He wanted it to appear
like a dream, so he partially exposed the film before shooting some scenes.
In other he placed gauze over the lens to create a fog over the whole image.
Another reason for the less than stellar image quality is that this is
a rare film. There are only a few copies in existence and this restoration
was pieced together from several different sources. This is
likely the best the film will look, baring a better print of negative being
Criterion usually packs a good number of extras on their upper price-tier
releases, and this one is no exception. On disc one there is the
movie itself as well as a good commentary by film historian Tony Rayns.
Rayns discuses the film's unique visual style and unusual method of editing
and story telling. He also explains some areas of the film that are
a little obtuse and hard to understand, which is helpful.
Disc two contains a documentary by Jörgen Roos, Carl Th. Dreyer
(1966). This half hour look at the director's work and his life is
in German but has optional English subtitles. There's a second featurette,
a 'visual essay' by scholar Casper Tybjerg who traces the surrealist style
of the film and discusses Dreyer's influences through stills and film clips.
Dreyer himself can be heard reading an essay of filmmaking that was recorded
in 1958 too.
The most interesting bonus item isn't found on the discs however.
There's a 46-page booklet that comes with the set which features some excellent
essays about Dreyer and the film as well as a 200+ page book which features
Dreyer's script as well at the story "Carmilla," on which the film is supposedly
based (thought there are few similarities.)
On the down side, the Masters of Cinema R2 release of this film also
included a commentary track with director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's
Labyrinth) that is missing from this edition. That's unfortunate
since I would have enjoyed hearing what he had to say about the film.
This is an amazing film, though it's not for everyone. It's a
movie that viewers have to work at to understand, and screening this film
isn't a passive event. Ultimately Dreyer has crafted a magnificent
work, one that is both haunting and engaging. The Criterion version
of this film, while not near the video quality of The Passion of Joan
of Arc is still vastly superior to any other version on home video.
Add to that a wonderful set of bonus features and you have a release that
is Highly Recommended.