If one were to compose a list of horror films that feature exemplary mood-building, the original Nosferatu would obviously make the cut. However, the lesser-known yet similarly-themed Vampyr would also demand inclusion. Written and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc), Vampyr is a profoundly disturbing film, with a menacing tone that seems embedded in every grainy, soft-focus image. This evocative, creepy tone is compromised, however, by a glacial pace and non-existent characters, so much that you might wish for a real blood-sucker to appear and put you out of your misery.
Vampyr’s central character is Allan Gray (Nicolas Louis Alexandre), a so-called “student of the occult.” Like Dracula’s absolutely feckless Jonathan Harker, Gray is a blank-slate, more of a conduit for the audience than a three-dimensional character. In the film’s first scenes, he arrives in the small village of Courtempierre for purposes that are unclear. After renting a room in a marvelously creepy, old hotel, he begins to experience a number of strange occurrences. First, an old man played by Maurice Schutz appears at Gray’s hotel room, where he leaves a package inscribed with the message, “To be opened upon my death.” This provokes a sprawling exploration of the village’s immediate area, where Gray slowly discovers that an evil, vampiric force is affecting the community.
Dreyer’s film possesses a clear stylistic efficacy, which comes to the forefront during Gray’s exploration of the area surrounding his hotel. In this long, sprawling sequence, the presence of the metaphysical is made explicit. Humanoid reflections in water have no corresponding body, shadows move with their own sentient freewill and disembodied sounds are frequently heard. Augmented by Dreyer’s craft – which also features an excellent use of real locations and stunning shillouettes – Vampyr’s disorienting, expressionistic design is the highpoint of its heavily abstracted story. Sections of the film are incredibly sparse in terms of narrative, which makes its dreamlike sensibility all the more essential for keeping viewers engaged.
Contributing to this semi-surreal mood is the film’s sparse soundtrack. The sporadic use of sound isn’t overly surprising considering that Vampyr was the first “talkie” Dreyer made (produced at the end of the silent era). Because of the severely limited dialogue, Vampyr chooses to explain its world through a trope borrowed from Murnau’s Nosferatu. Adopting a literal page from that earlier classic, Dreyer’s film offers a wealth of information about vampires, revealed through seemingly endless, and quite boring, shots of an open book that Gray reads. This expository information helps Gray eventually confront the village’s supernatural evil, which has threatened Leone and Gisele, the daughters of Schutz’s old man character.
The frequent inserts of the book feel didactic and slow, bogging down a film that should feel relatively brief considering its slim run time.
It also doesn’t help that there are very few characters in which to become invested. Shot with a cast of largely non-actors, Vampyr doesn’t have much in the way of involving characterizations. Nicolas Louis Alexandre does little with the lead role, his face frozen in largely one dumb expression for the entirety of the story. Giséle (played by Rena Mandel) is also too demure and static to register. Significantly better is Sybille Schmitz’s Leone, whose bewitched vampire victim is both frightening and sad.
Other characters, such as a village doctor (Jan Hieronimko) who is under the influence of the vampire, are so fleetingly used that it’s hard to form an opinion. And really that is an accurate summation of Vampyr as a whole. The film is not character-driven by any stretch of the imagination, but one would also be hard-pressed to claim that it is plot-driven, especially when it often moves in a slow and meandering fashion. Instead, Vampyr is a movie best described as being mood-driven, and in this sense it is striking success. Through the vision of Dreyer, Vampyr creates an immersive world of darkness and shadow. It is one that feels fundamentally wrong, where the material and the supernatural overlap and affect one another. His totality of vision is injected into nearly every frame, from its moody opening to its ambiguous and unnerving ending. This is a unique accomplishment, one that demands attention even if you will be hard pressed describe how the film makes you feel.