Vampyr at 90: how Carl Dreyer conjured a waking nightmare

A disorienting dive into the world of the uncanny, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s horror landmark Vampyr retains its ability to unsettle and unnerve.

Vampyr (1932)

Despite a lacklustre response upon its original release, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 proto-chiller Vampyr is now rightly regarded as a masterpiece of cinematic horror. Its high-profile fans have included Guillermo del Toro and Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, who called it “the only film worth watching… twice”. 

The film’s initial reception is perhaps easy to explain: even though horror was still a fledgling genre at the time, Dreyer’s film was already an outlier, owing more to experimental cinema and abstract fine art than the likes of Tod Browning’s contemporaneous Dracula (1931). 

Seen today, however, it’s precisely those influences that make Vampyr so startlingly fresh, like a timeless relic from some other world. Right from the off, it plunges the viewer into an eerie, uncanny atmosphere. As the script itself puts it, “every object has a tinge of unreality”.  

The film’s hero, Allan Gray, arrives at a dingy riverside inn on a foggy, moonlit evening. He observes a man with a scythe ringing a bell – the man is calling for a ferry but, in the first of the film’s many premonitions of death, he appears like the Reaper, summing Charon across the Styx.

Vampyr (1932)

On taking a room, Gray retires for the night, only to receive a ghostly visitation from “a soul in mortal distress”, which is “crying out for help”. Gray turns in his bed, and we wonder if the visitation is real or imagined. The film’s subtitle is, after all, ‘The Dream of Allan Gray’.

Gray, the man caught between light and dark, real and supernatural, was played by Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who also funded the film. Like many of the cast, he wasn’t a professional actor, and his sullenly stiff performance only enhances the character’s strangeness. 

Vampyr was made during the transition from silent to talking pictures, and the film was shot mute. Gunzburg was one of only two actors who dubbed their own voice, with even the animal noises being performed by professional imitators. The jarring nature of this post-synchronisation, working in tandem with Wolfgang Zeller’s creepy score, adds a further sense that something isn’t quite right. Meanwhile, the clipped, staccato rhythm and non-sequiturs of the minimal dialogue give the soundtrack a poetry all of its own. 

Still, despite its aural mastery, Vampyr is very much a film in thrall to the visual language and experimentation of the silent era, even making use of long, explanatory intertitles. Dreyer reteamed with cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who had shot his previous film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), a late silent masterpiece. In that film, Dreyer and Maté had broken conventional notions of cinematic grammar in order to elevate the drama to a metaphysical, spiritual level, and here they employed similar tactics for a more sinister purpose: to unnerve the viewer and render the uncanny on screen. 

Not only did they drench the film in a hazy glow, achieved by shooting through a gauze held in front of the camera, but they once again eschewed any clear establishment of space, meaning that characters lurch out at us from unexpected places: you can never even be sure where people are, let alone what’s around the next corner. This is, after all, a miraculous world where shadows and reflections move with freedom, independent of the bodies they belong to – a freedom matched by the film’s flowing, unchained camera, which glides along, unmotivated, like a spirit roaming the corridors. 

The uncanny imagery of Vampyr (1932)
Vampyr (1932)

Such techniques are all the stranger for being realised entirely on location, mainly in the small French village of Courtempierre, the juxtaposition of the uncanny with the real-world settings only further highlighting their inherent mystery. 

And that’s to say nothing of the plot, which unfolds without any traditional sense of causality. Take, for example, the moment in which Gray asks about “the dogs”… The canines had appeared in a scene which was excluded from the final edit. The fact that the reference to them remains is emblematic of the way the film ignores linear progression in favour of the surreal randomness that one associates with dreams.

Vampyr is often cited as being based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story ‘Carmilla’, a pioneering gothic thriller featuring a female vampire. The on-screen credit, however, is for In a Glass Darkly, the 1872 collection of stories in which Carmilla appears, and Dreyer took elements from many of the stories. Most notably, a famous sequence in which Gray is buried alive in his coffin is drawn from ‘The Room in the Dragon Volant’, in which the protagonist is drugged into a waking coma before being placed in a casket.

The scene in Vampyr is among its most powerful, and suitably representative of the film as a whole. If cinema has ever succeeded in projecting a waking nightmare on to the screen, this is it.

Vampyr is back in cinemas for its 90th anniversary from 20 May 2022.

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