Germany/France 1932, 75 mins, Carl Dreyer Filmproduktion
DVD: Eureka Entertainment (UK), Cert PG
When a young man travelling through Europe arrives at a remote village, he comes across strange and surreal sightings and events which seem to centre around a forboding castle. His academic knowledge of devils and vampires leads him to some alarming conclusions about what is happening before his eyes, and an encounter with the local lord's daughter leads him on a terrifying journey...
Shot independently on location, and using primitive sound recording techniques, Vampyr is nothing less than astonishing, both as an achievement and as a pure spine-chilling exercise. The screenplay (if that's the right word) from director Carl Dreyer and Christen Jul draws on various elements of J. Sheridan LeFanu's Through A Glass Darkly, shaping them into one of the most truly accurate depictions of a nightmarish dream state ever committed to celluloid. A hazy, washed-out look (apparently achieved by placing gauze over the camera lens) permeates the whole film, and Dreyer keeps the dialogue to a minimum, preferring to use the techniques of silent cinema which were already being trampled underfoot by the coming of sound.
The cast consists entirely of amateur performers, led by the film's financier Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, under the pseudonym of Julian West. His evident lack of experience in front of a camera only adds to the disconcerting feel of the piece, his slow deliberate movements complementing the increasingly bizarre tale unfolding. A sequence in which he dreams of his own death and burial is one of the most iconic horror movie moments of its period.
Initially met with a response ranging from muted to downright hostile, Vampyr is likely to baffle anyone looking for conventional narrative, and is the kind of non-linear experience which requires the viewer to just let themselves go and be engulfed by its atmosphere and twisted delights. Championed by filmmakers as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock and Guillermo Del Toro (who provides a commentary on this particular release), it's a true benchmark horror picture whose influence on the genre as a whole cannot be underestimated.
DVD Notes: Eureka Entertainment's release presents the most complete version of the film seen in many a year, utilising a composite of the French and German versions (the English version is currently believed lost). This is the best version you're likely to see, and a wealth of extras make it an essential purchase for scholars of horror history.