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The Hell Plaza Oktoberfest

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Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Vampyr (Criterion)

1932 (2008) - Criterion

Whenever horror filmmakers are interviewed, they'll invariably talk about the importance of shadow and mood and how much scarier things are if you leave things up to the viewer's imagination. Almost nobody says, "Yeah, things are so much scarier if you coat the entire set with blood and linger over the axe sinking into the victim's flesh," despite the fact that most modern horror directors do just that. There's a tendency to point to the classic horror films of the silent era up through the 40s as exemplars of this type of storytelling. But while most of these movies are still undeniably entertaining, relatively few are still able to raise the gooseflesh of a modern audience. One of the few that has kept most of its unsettling power is Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr.

Vampyr tells the dreamlike story of Allen Grey (played by the film's financial baker Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg using the pseudonym "Julian West"), a seeker of the fantastique who stumbles upon a small, quiet village. He receives a midnight visit from an old man who fears for his daughter's life. The man leaves him a package to be opened in the event of his death. Grey investigates further and learns that the girl is the victim of a vampire, Margureite Chopin, who uses the village doctor to do her bidding.

For a film made at the dawn of the sound era, Vampyr feels surprisingly modern. Dreyer uses dialogue sparingly, so we are spared the broad emoting so typical of early sound film. Also forward thinking is the moody, active camerawork of cinematographer Rudolph Maté. The camera glides through the sets in unexpected ways, pulling back when you expect it to push forward, panning left or right when you expect it to stay still. Dreyer and Maté choose odd, disconcerting camera angles, framing both familiar and unfamiliar objects in ways that make you question what you're looking at. Perhaps the film's most famous sequence is when Grey imagines himself buried alive, told primarily through the use of a subjective camera in the coffin itself.

Despite the vampire and the premature burial, the film doesn't rely on traditional scares or even, in many respects, traditional narrative techniques. Dreyer isn't necessarily trying to scare the audience. Instead, he wants to unsettle the audience, to fill them with dread and unease. The vampire herself is something of a red herring. We are meant to be frightened just in general, not necessarily by the vampire and her minions specifically. The odd, ominous atmosphere is at times reminiscent of the films of David Lynch, who I'm willing to bet was influenced by this movie at some point.

Criterion has lavished a great deal of care on this title, as is their wont. The restored print is far from perfect but still ranks as a considerable improvement over other versions I've seen. Furthermore, this is the first time I've seen the image presented at its correct aspect ratio of 1.19:1. The sound is slightly better than you might ordinarily expect from a film of this vintage. As usual, Criterion packs on the extras starting with a book reproducing both the film's screenplay as well as the complete short story "Carmilla", one of the tales by J. Sheridan Le Fanu that loosely inspired Vampyr. Disc One contains an informative and engaging commentary by film critic and historian Tony Rayns. Another nice bonus is the addition of an English-text version. Much of the film is told through title cards and full-screen close-ups of pages from a book on vampire lore. In its original version, these sequences can make the subtitles difficult to read. The English-text version digitally replaces the original German text with English text in the original style. Very handy indeed.

Disc Two contains a 1966 documentary on Dreyer with the director sharing his thoughts on his entire body of work, film by film. Dreyer is also present in a 1958 radio broadcast of The Film Art, delivering a somewhat dry but interesting lecture on the role of the director. Best of all on the second disc is an extensive video essay by Dreyer expert Casper Tybjerg. Illustrated with stills, artwork, film clips and rare behind-the-scenes photos, Tybjerg analyzes the film from a number of perspectives. We even get to see some extremely interesting deleted scenes. The video essay is a fascinating dissection of the film that will almost certainly add to your appreciation of it. Finally, the package includes a supplementary booklet with essays by Mark Le Fanu, noted horror novelist and critic Kim Newman, an article on the restoration by Martin Koerber and an interview with Baron de Gunzburg, a.k.a. Julian West hisownself.

Dreyer was hardly a prolific director anyway and he never made another film quite like Vampyr. It doesn't seem to have a tremendously high reputation amongst horror fans, many of whom probably find it confusing and occasionally dull. However, there are images and sequences to be found here that rank among the eeriest ever put on film. Criterion's lavish two-disc set presents this landmark in high style. Anyone with a serious interest in the complete history of horror cinema should have this on their shelf.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C+/A

Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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