Directed by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1932 and his first sound picture, Vampyr may have been meant as a fairly commercial endeavor but, maybe not so surprisingly in hindsight, it failed to connect with audiences of its day. Decades later, however, it's easy to appreciate just how impressive a film it really is.
Very loosely based on the short story Carmilla written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and published in his In A Glass Darkly collection, the story introduces us to a young man named Allan Grey (Julian West). He's a man with a deep interest in vampires and the supernatural and he's also a bit of a wanderer. When we first meet him, he's arrived at an inn in the town of Courtempierre. Oddly enough, a strange looking old man (Maurice Schutz) comes into his room, puts a package on the table, and ushers him a stern, macabre warning about how he must ‘not let her die.' After the man vanishes, Gray deduces that someone is in need of help and, package in hand, he heads out into the night and winds up being lured by shadows to a creepy old house. This is the home of the town's eccentric doctor (Jan Hieronimko). Here the doctor is given a bottle of poison by an old woman.
Later, Grey spies the old man from the inn as he's shot dead by a shadow creature. Grey heads to the old man's house where he meets Gisèle (Rena Mandel) and Léone (Sybille Schmitz), his two daughters, and their servants. It's then that Grey decides to open the package that the man gave him. When he does, he finds an ancient tome that details the history of vampires. This comes in handy when it turns out that Léone has been bitten. When the doctor is asked to help, he instead offers her the bottle of poison he was given and makes off with Gisèle. It turns out that all of this ties into Marguerite Chopin, the resident vampire of Courtempierre, long dead, or so we're led to believe…
One of many interesting things about this film is how the vampire of the film is portrayed. While there are exceptions (Nosferatu being the most obvious example), vampires are typically portrayed in films as having no shortage of sex appeal. Be they male or female, vampires are usually able to entice their victims, their feeding habits having more in common with whatever rite of seduction you'd care to mention than anything else. Not so with this film. Here our antagonist looks more like a decrepit old witch than she does a succubus from a Jean Rollin or Jess Franco movie. Dreyer plays this up well. Vampires in this world are repulsive things, they're sick and they spread their sickness like a plague. The visuals further enhance this in a lot of interesting ways: long, shadowy figures stalk the streets, a man with a scythe looking not at all unlike the grim reaper skulks about, graves are dug, horrifying faces appear… it's all very grim, quite nightmarish and wonderfully macabre. This sets the mood in interesting ways, allowing Dreyer to take the film into some serious flirtations with surrealism at times.
At just over seventy minutes in length the picture never overstays its welcome. While this is a ‘sound film' there isn't a whole lot of dialogue here, more than not the exposition that drives the narrative comes in the form of lengthy intertitles, but it works. We never have any trouble following the narrative, a narrative that, as many have noted before, leaves a lot open to the individual viewer to interpret. Some have made the case that the film is autobiographical to an extent, serving as a way for the director to come to terms with his own past as an adopted child and issues he had with those who raised him. Regardless, the film remains a striking work of dark, an atypical vampire film that seems just as strikingly strange and unique today as it must have when it first played theaters during its initial release.The Blu-ray:
Vampyr debuts on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection in a "high definition digital transfer of the original German version of the film, from the 1998 restoration by Martin Koerber and the Cineteca di Bologna" framed at 1.19.1. So this means that the transfer on this disc is taken from the same restoration that was used for Criterion's DVD release a few years ago, but clearly the added resolution that Blu-ray offers factors in here. For a film that's well over eighty years old, the transfer here is solid. Parts of the movie were clearly shot with gauze or some sort of filter overtop and those shots understandably look significantly softer than others but for the most part the detail levels evident in the picture are more than satisfying. Some print damage is noticeable throughout but while it might be constant, it's not major and never particularly distracting. Black levels look good, contrast is fine and there's a nice grey scale to the black and white image. The transfer shows no evidence of digital manipulation in the form of noise reduction or edge enhancement and the disc is free of compression artifacts. This is a very impressive picture, all things considered.Sound:
The only audio option for the feature is an LPCM Mono track with optional subtitles provided that translate the dialogue and the frequent text screens from German to English. There isn't a ton of dialogue here but what is in the film sounds alright. The score really benefits from the lossless treatment, it sounds quite solid. Hiss and distortion are non-issues and the levels are nicely balanced throughout playback.Extras:
In addition to including the alternate version with English text, Criterion includes an audio commentary featuring film scholar Tony Rayns that is, in a word, excellent. This piece is very well researched and it covers not only Dreyer's direction work and the efforts of the cast but also the film's influences and influences, the look and style employed in the feature, the distribution history of the film and loads more. This track is simply packed with information and even if you're not a commentary junkie, it's well worth listening to.
Criterion has also included some featurettes, starting with Carl Th. Dreyer, a documentary directed by Jørgen Roos in 1966 that runs roughly half an hour in length. It's basically a career overview of the director made up of archival clips and what not. It's quite interesting and a nice addition to the disc. We also get a thirty minute long video essay by film scholar Casper Tybjerg that details Dreyer's influences and how they work their way into Vampyr. Again, this is interesting stuff as Tybjerg talks about what must have inspired the director to make the film in the first place and examines the visuals that make the film as memorable and unusual as it is. Also included on the disc is a radio broadcast from 1958 that features Dreyer reading an essay about filmmaking that runs twenty-five minutes in length.
In addition to the supplements on the disc, Criterion also includes an insert booklet featuring essays by film critics Mark Le Fanu and Kim Newman as well as some technical information on the film's restoration. Also included in this book is a reprint of a 1964 interview with producer/actor Nicolas de Gunzburg. This set also comes packaged in a cardboard slipcover that holds not just the gatefold with the disc and insert booklet but an additional book that contains Dreyer and Christen Jul's original screenplay as well as Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 story Carmilla which clearly served as an inspiration for the film.Final Thoughts:
Vampyr retains its power to enchant viewers close to a century since it was made, a unique film that is as eerie as it is compelling and a masterpiece of visual storytelling. This new Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection presents the film in beautiful shape and with a really solid selection of supplemental material accompanying it. Highly recommended!