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Buckeye Jones

Vampyr (1932)

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I searched and searched and as usual could not find a dedicated thread to this one. Some reference to it here, regarding different DVD versions.

I just finished the Image Ent. 1991/1998 version, 1h12min packaged with Starewicz's Fetiche (which I gave up on after fifteen minutes).

With that out of the way, on to Vampyr. I have to say, in interest of full disclosure, we had a terrible time trying to watch this one. In the end, we spread it out over three nights, with a week or so in between viewings. Definitely not ideal at all. This affected my experience with the film more than the bad sound, the crappy image quality (not the over-exposure, although I didn't find that as effective as Dreyer must have, just the restoration), and the horrible, horrible font choice for the subtitles.

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A brief plot summary: This guy named Allen Gray's out in the German? countryside. He encounters an old man sneaking into his inn's room and leaving a book. He follows the man to his house, where he lives with his two daughters and servants. We learn one of the daughters is sick. During the evening when Allen journeys to the old man's house, he sees him murdered. Rushing to aid the family, he learns worse evils are taking place there. Opening the man's book, he learns that all the events of that terrible night seem to be the work of an undead vampire and his nefarious servants. We follow Allen and a trusty servant as they attempt to undue the vampire's curse that has taken hold of the old man's oldest daughter. Will they succeed? (umm, well, Hollywood certainly doesn't have a monopoly on happy endings)

I had a hard time connecting with this one, something I didn't have at all with Dreyer's Joan of Arc film. Whereas in Joan, I connected immediately with that actress, the Allen Gray character in Vampyr seemed so distant and vapid. I felt like I was the one in the fog, not Allen. Maybe it was the over-exposed film, or the confused stare coming from the actor. Maybe it was because he ran like a girl or because he didn't freak out when his room at the inn is broken into by the book-bearing old man. I don't know. He just didn't register with me, and as the main hero, he made it easier for me to turn off after twenty minutes and pick it up later.

None of the other characters, except for the evil doctor, made much of an impression either. But that doctor! Far scarier than the vampire, his creepy Einstein looking coiffure and his glints of impatient temper registered with me. What kind of man would sell out his own fellow humans for a demon's company? Nastiness bubbled under his surface. His delight at being around death and its trappings (the skeleton, the vampire, the blood, hanging out with the coffin in his house, poison) with no obvious gain created a chill in my spine. As an aside, I wonder if in Witness Peter Weir was giving a nod to Dreyer when he killed off his main villian's henchman in the same fashion in which the doctor is offed here?

The plot seemed really jumpy, without a lot of coherent connections between the characters. Why did the old man chose Grey? How did the servant know where to find the vampire's grave? What was up with Grey's dream sequence--even though I found it eerily effective, I didn't understand its relevance to the story?

Contributing to the jumpiness of the narrative was that all the information about the vampire and his assistants came in large chunks of Grey and the servant reading the old man's book. Show, don't tell, right? Well, here it was read, don't show.

Certain scenes I felt were excellent--and I can see why they're famous today: Grey's dream where he sees himself buried--that candle on the coffin window and then the vampire's face appearing unexpectedly; the ghostly shadows moving in the trees; the crazed look of the older sister as she fears she's damned. But as a whole, I can't say I truly liked this one. I definitely appreciate it (Dreyer still was able to draw me in at times, despite the crummy packaging from Image), but I felt the sum was less than the parts.

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Buckeye, I admire the way you're plunging into films like this! I absolutely love Vampyr (and The Mascot, btw, what did you think of that?), but on an almost completely stylistic/formal level more than a character- or plot-based one. It's not a film I get emotionally drawn into like Joan or Dreyer's sound films, it's a film that casts a spell and is so beautifully crafted that I am awed, frightened, and transported. The movie's inventive visuals, lighting, dream logic, and most of all its disorienting use of space (which, granted, takes a few viewings to fully appreciate) are stunning and way ahead of their time. Dreyer was heavily influenced by modern Parisian art movements of the '20s, and Vampyr is a very experimental, sophisticated film--even if its public domain status and Image's awful DVD (which you so rightly chastise) do not do it justice. (For a sample comparison of what it ought to look like, check this out.)

Conventional wisdom suggests that long takes and camera movement unify space in a movie and editing fragments it (as Dreyer famously did with Joan), but the long takes and movements in Vampyr actually subvert expectations and create a spacial world that exists somewhere between dream and reality. Characters enter and exit in unknown ways, they're introduced on one side of the screen but later appear on another, they're established as being outdoors but later appear inside, etc. And certain sequences are extremely memorable, like the three you cite--Gray's burial, the woman's hallucinations, the doctor's death.

For a solid analysis of the film, I'd recommend David Rudkin's new mini-book for the BFI Film Classics series (just published a few weeks ago), but for a more in-depth and thorough reading, I'd recommend David Bordwell's analysis in his 1981 book on Dreyer.

I had a hard time connecting with this one, something I didn't have at all with Dreyer's Joan of Arc film. Whereas in Joan, I connected immediately with that actress, the Allen Gray character in Vampyr seemed so distant and vapid. I felt like I was the one in the fog, not Allen.

Yeah, he's not particularly heroic or compelling, more a double for the viewer, simply exploring and encountering the strange world that envelops us.

But that doctor! Far scarier than the vampire, his creepy Einstein looking coiffure and his glints of impatient temper registered with me. What kind of man would sell out his own fellow humans for a demon's company? Nastiness bubbled under his surface. His delight at being around death and its trappings (the skeleton, the vampire, the blood, hanging out with the coffin in his house, poison) with no obvious gain created a chill in my spine. As an aside, I wonder if in Witness Peter Weir was giving a nod to Dreyer when he killed off his main villian's henchman in the same fashion in which the doctor is offed here?

That wouldn't surprise me at all. And I agree with your appraisal of the doctor's character--quite creepy!

The plot seemed really jumpy, without a lot of coherent connections between the characters. Why did the old man chose Grey? How did the servant know where to find the vampire's grave? What was up with Grey's dream sequence--even though I found it eerily effective, I didn't understand its relevance to the story?

I think it's supposed to be "eerily effective" without justifying some plot schematic. The film is disquieting because it doesn't really fit together in clear, linear fashion (long before Phantasm or Wes Craven were around), and that "jumpiness" makes it seem even more dreamlike, unpredictable, and unnerving.

Contributing to the jumpiness of the narrative was that all the information about the vampire and his assistants came in large chunks of Grey and the servant reading the old man's book. Show, don't tell, right? Well, here it was read, don't show.

Yeah, there is a lot of exposition given in these scenes. (Interestingly enough, the text isn't included in the published screenplay. I wonder if it was added later to help "explain" the film's mythos?) For some reason, it doesn't bother me, though, it's all pretty eerie and fascinating and it's fun to speculate how the vampyr lore applies to the drama.

Most recently, I was able to see the version restored by the Bologna cinematheque on the big screen with a live narrator who translated the German intertitles for us--it was a pretty memorable experience!

Edited by Doug C

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And the quality isn't much worse than the Image DVD! :(

Actually, that's pretty cool--you can also watch such masterpieces as Epstein's amazing The Fall of the House of Usher, Von Stroheim's Blind Husbands, Bu

Edited by Doug C

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Buckeye, I admire the way you're plunging into films like this!

Yeah, well, I don't know if stetching an 80 minute film over three weeks counts as "plunging", but I'm going to stick with the exploration of more challenging stuff to season the household cinematic menu.

It's not a film I get emotionally drawn into like Joan or Dreyer's sound films, it's a film that casts a spell and is so beautifully crafted that I am awed, frightened, and transported. The movie's inventive visuals, lighting, dream logic, and most of all its disorienting use of space (which, granted, takes a few viewings to fully appreciate) are stunning and way ahead of their time. Dreyer was heavily influenced by modern Parisian art movements of the '20s, and Vampyr is a very experimental, sophisticated film

I'm not familiar with the Continent's art movements post-Dada, and maybe some surrealism, but certainly Vampyr has a healthy dose of absurdity and surreality. I really think my piecemeal viewing of this one hurt my evaluation of its craft.

Yeah, he's not particularly heroic or compelling, more a double for the viewer, simply exploring and encountering the strange world that envelops us.
And in that case, it succeeded in making me feel as if I was in a dreamlike state (and I'm not just talking about nodding off during it ;)). Its a departure for me to be watching movies that are more about the experience than the story; I find it disorienting. I had no patience for the most mainstream offering like this that I can remember, Disney's original Fantasia.

The film is disquieting because it doesn't really fit together in clear, linear fashion (long before Phantasm or Wes Craven were around), and that "jumpiness" makes it seem even more dreamlike, unpredictable, and unnerving.

True indeed. I am not a horror film fan, having never seen a Wes Craven film other than snippets of the Elm Street movies during junior high and high school. I've enjoyed some of the modern, less gory ones, like The Others, The Sixth Sense, and the like, which were also more mood pieces than fright fests--but still very linear in their narrative.

Most recently, I was able to see the version restored by the Bologna cinematheque on the big screen with a live narrator who translated the German intertitles for us--it was a pretty memorable experience!

That would have been a neat experience. Sadly, my in-cinema days are few and far between.

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Yeah, well, I don't know if stetching an 80 minute film over three weeks counts as "plunging", but I'm going to stick with the exploration of more challenging stuff to season the household cinematic menu.

Hey, we do what we can. :)

I'm not familiar with the Continent's art movements post-Dada, and maybe some surrealism, but certainly Vampyr has a healthy dose of absurdity and surreality.

Totally; in their Dreyer biography, Jean and Dale Drum quote Dreyer as saying, "At the time I made Vampyr I had been living in Paris for four or five years. In Paris at that time, you couldn't help but be caught up in the excitement and the imagination which the various artists and movements created, whether 'cubism,' 'dadism,' 'surrealism,' or what have you. I knew several painters and I was involved in discussions with and about them. So, of course, I was influenced, but by the excitement, the energy, the variety of work, not by any particular painter or movement. At the time of Vampyr, I was 'over head and ears' in interest in abstract art."

And in that case, it succeeded in making me feel as if I was in a dreamlike state (and I'm not just talking about nodding off during it ;)).

Ha!

Its a departure for me to be watching movies that are more about the experience than the story; I find it disorienting. I had no patience for the most mainstream offering like this that I can remember, Disney's original Fantasia.

Well, Vampyr is a narrative film, it's just de-emphasized in lieu of dream logic and cinematic style. The part of Fantasia I remember enjoying the most is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," and that's undoubtedly because the story sticks with me. Hollywood emphasizes narrative so we've had that angle drummed into our heads all our life. And it appeals to our left brain logic, connect-the-dots thinking. But movies can ofer much more in addition to that; we just have to learn new ways of seeing and appreciating...which can be challenging.

Oh, and I'm not really a modern horror film fan, either, but I do appreciate films that know how to construct atmosphere and tap into our subconscious fears, and there are many classic horror films that are quite accomplished!

Edited by Doug C

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(Exasperated gasp)

Finally. It's about time. What took them so long?

Edited by Persona

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I recently purchased the Criterion release (gorgeous set, by the way).

VAMPYR features some incredibly powerful, memorable imagery. I'm not sure it's the masterpiece some folks have made it out to be, though. Dreyer's VAMPYR strikes me as more of a curiosity than a landmark, inspiring only on occasion, rather than consistently throughout. But when it delivers, man, does it deliver.

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I revisited Vampyr recently, the new hi-def digital transfer from Criterion, which simply rocks. It's so much more clear and fun to look at, the scenes are so much easier to watch in this release. Gone are the 1/3 of the screen gothic letters of old! The subtitles, few as they need to be for Vampyr, are perfect.

The commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns is pretty good too. He had some great info on the context in which Dreyer worked: dealing with studios and the demands of the times; all of the lawsuits he got caught up in that slowed his film career in general; camera use, subjective and objective story-telling, how and why certain shots were accomplished and how they added to the psychological dread in the story; film theory and the beginnings of dream logic; and Dreyer on the heels of Cocteau, Buñuel and Dali (something I'd wondered about before and was only breifly mentioned, but my suspicions were confirmed and I appreciated the commentary about that).

To be completely honest, I would have preferred a commentary by Doug C. But Rayns did fine, from an acacdemic standpoint. He lacked the passion that Doug C would have brought to the experience.

I am not going to call this a horror movie anymore. It may qualify as "pre-horror" or something unclassifiable. This was certainly years ahead of Last Night at Marienbad and Persona and all things Lynch, but just as well thought out, maybe too well thought out. Audiences at the time of its release were divided.

I would highly recommend for Buckeye and anyone here interested who has not seen the Criterion edition -- check it out. If you strugggle with it, go ahead and watch with the commentary for a bit.

It's separate from The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath and Ordet, but it's also its own work -- way ahead of its time, highly unclassifiable, creepy in places, and a great deal of fun for cinephiles.

vampyr3.jpg

Edited by Persona

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