Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Henriette Gérard
Perhaps the strangest horror film ever made, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) is almost entirely devoid of the outright thrills associated with the genre, while managing to be one of the creepiest, most unsettling movies you’re ever likely to see. On the surface, this is a very straightforward, simple vampire yarn. But beneath that surface, it’s really like nothing else out there. Vampyr is one of those rare, otherworldly films that truly qualifies as nightmarish. Nothing about the film—from its look to its largely amateur cast to its ungainly soundtrack—is normal.
The movie can feel like any number of things. Sometimes it smacks of the surreal, the avant-garde. (There are parts that might have been made by Buñuel or Cocteau.) Other times, it feels like a cheap B picture (think White Zombie made the same year), something exacerbated by its almost nonstop Wolfgang Zeller musical score. Occasionally, it looks like a film at least 10 years older than it is, while at other times it looks like something out of the 1950s. (The latter, I suspect, stems from a combination of the nonacting and the often spare, oddly lit settings.) Everything about it conspires to achieve its signature strangeness.
The story offers few surprises, with its passive hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), being drawn—almost pulled along—into an incident involving vampires in a rural area. However, what it instead offers is a series of utterly disturbing, generally inexplicable scenes that traffic in audience dislocation. Shadows have lives of their own. Objects move that shouldn’t. Upside-down reflections flit along the top of the frame. Footage of the shadow of someone digging a hole is printed in reverse. Numerous characters are sensed, but few are seen.
Its imagery has drifted into legend and been annexed over the years—the villainous doctor is obviously the model for Jack MacGowran in Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), while the point-of-view scene where Gray watches his own funeral through a window in his coffin forms the basis for a fantasy sequence in Ken Russell’s Mahler (1974). Experience Vampyr‘s unique atmosphere yourself. You mayn’t exactly like it, but you won’t forget it.
Vampyr, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St., in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.