Part 1: A Pagan Past
There is a moment in Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, an unimportant throw-away couple of seconds, where the nominal hero of the story catches sight of a couple of shadows, shadows with no physical source, creeping across a field. The film is grainy, hazy, gauzy. It captures perfectly the prevailing atmosphere of Vampyr. Though ostensibly a vampire film, the hypnotic power of the movie flows not from the more visceral terror of fanged bloodsuckers, but rather it comes from a vaguer, ethereal place; something to do with ancient beings glimpsed from the corner of the eye, ancient mysterious powers, murky forests and glens that are at once idyllic and unnerving. There is something very pagan about the film that places it not among the famous works of vampire fiction, but alongside Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and films such as The Wicker Man.
At the time he set about making Vampyr, (around the same time as Universal’s Dracula), Carl Dreyer was a director of high regard and low success. 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc was a critical darling, , but it was a box office dud. Dreyer, for all his talent as a filmmaker, found himself casting about for a new project and someone willing to pay for it. Perhaps out of cynicism, perhaps out of genuine interest, he decided he should make a “genre” picture. Such films were generally undemanding and seemed to resonate with crowds both in Europe and the United States. While seeking out source material for his new film, Dreyer came across the book In a Glass Darkly (1872) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. In a Glass Darkly contains three short stories and two novellas, each with supernatural and macabre elements. They are proffered as cases from the files of occult investigator Dr. Martin Hesselius.
Within that book, Dreyer found the inspiration, if not exactly the source, for his next movie. The two novellas in particular caught Dreyer’s attention. “The Room in the Dragon Volant” is a Victorian melodrama that takes a turn for the Edgar Allan Poe when one of the characters is buried alive. It was that scenario alone — the premature burial — which Dreyer co-opted from the story and placed in his film. The other, more influential, and far more famous story was “Carmilla,” the account of a young woman who finds herself under the spell of a beautiful female vampire.
It was only the third major work of vampire fiction, the first being The Vampyre (written in 1816 but published in 1819), frequently misattributed to Lord Byron but actually written by his “personal physician” and traveling companion, John Polidori, who meant his lascivious bloodsucker to be a parody of Byron. The second was the massive, meandering Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer, published between 1845-1847 as a series of penny dreadfuls. Other earlier works of poetry had mentioned vampires, and they’d kicked around in folklore for a long time, but as the central subjects of short stories and books, they were still relatively new when Le Fanu wrote “Carmilla.” Bram Stoker wouldn’t get around to overshadowing them all until 1897, when the success Dracula made it the template for the vampire until Anne Rice gave them their Goth rocker makeover in 1976’s Interview with a Vampire, an image which itself endured until the teen melodrama and sparkling vampires of the Twilight series.
Culled from multiple folktales from multiple regions over multiple decades, the idea that there is any definitive set of vampire characteristics (besides, presumably, an enthusiasm for opera capes) is folly. Polidori’s vampire, Lord Ruthven, is capable of striding about in the daylight (as was Dracula, for that matter), though he is possessed of a ghastly pallor and lustful decadence — a lust that culminates every full moon, when he must slay a victim and drink their blood. Beyond a certain hypnotic skill and the ability to whisper “Remember your oath,” Ruthven is possessed of no particularly supernatural powers. As much as Ruthven loves having fun, he hates the sight of others having fun. Among his pastimes is showing up at parties and giving everyone the sour face until they all feel their night has been ruined by this dreary nobleman. But the thing he loves most is destroying people. If you are a respectable lady, he will seduce you, ruin your reputation, and then cast you aside. If you are an alcoholic beggar, he will give you money just so he can revel as you squander it all on booze. He thirsts not just for human blood, but also for the destruction of the honorable and corruption of the innocent. In short, he loves being evil.
Lord Ruthven was one of the world’s first pop culture monster icons. In the wake of The Vampyre’s success, dozens of Lord Ruthven tales and imitators sprang up across Europe. In France, Cyprien Bérard wrote Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires in 1820. In Germany, the story of Lord Ruthven was adapted into two operas in 1828, both called Der Vampyre, one by Heinrich August Marschner and W. A. Wohlbrück, and the other by Peter Josef von Lindpaintner and Cäsar Max Heigel. Ruthven appeared in stage plays (including one by Alexandre Dumas), short stories, and novels. He even pops up as late as 1984, as a character in the young adult novel Prisoner Of Vampires by Nancy Garden, where he is a relative of Dracula and Carmilla.
One of the most interesting Ruthven cash-ins is 1850’s The Vampyre by Elizabeth Ellet. It’s interesting not because of its content (it is basically a rewrite of Polidori’s story but with a better female character) but because of the woman who wrote it. Ellet made a name for herself as a chronicler of the role of women in the building of America, but she is more infamously known as a thorn in the side of Edgar Allan Poe. As the story goes (it quickly devolves into gossip and unsubstantiated bouts of “he quoth/she quoth”) Ellet took a liking to Poe. She wrote him a number of letters. At the time, Poe was married and already juggling the exchange of flirtatious poetry with Frances Sargent Osgood, herself also married.
During a visit to Poe’s home, his wife Virginia allegedly showed Ellet a stack of amorous letters sent to Poe by Osgood. Ellet took it as an opportunity to publicly confront Osgood and Poe. Poe responded by accusing Ellet herself of inundating him with unsolicited romantic correspondence, which he unceremoniously dumped back on her doorstep. Ever bold, Ellet enlisted the aid of her brother, whose threats against the life of Poe went so far that Poe secured for himself a pistol. Ellet then claimed that the letters from her were clever forgeries perpetrated by Poe himself, who wanted to deflect attention from the scandal between him and Osgood.
Ellet took to society gossip and newspapers ferociously, accusing Poe of being unstable and insane. She reportedly also pestered Poe’s wife Virginia with letters detailing Poe’s dalliances, a harassment that drove the sickly Virginia to her death (Virginia herself claimed as such, stating Mrs. E. had been her murderer). Poe and Ellet took to writing snide poetry at one another in various literary journals, as was fashionable among sniping literati at the time. Despite the nasty tenor of their feud, Ellet went on to write a number of important books, in addition to plagiarizing the story of Lord Ruthven.
The next big literary vampire didn’t generate the same wave imitation as Polidori’s Ruthven. Varney the Vampire, attributed to James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest, suffers from many of the inconsistencies typical of long-running serials, when an author has to keep track of an increasing number of details over a period of years. He is sometimes a literal vampire and other times a figurative vampire, and the author can’t seem to decide whether he is draining his victims of blood or money or both. While we might initially find Lord Ruthven rather a fun-loving hedonist, he quickly becomes a loathsome predator. Varney, on the other hand, grows into an increasingly sympathetic character as his story winds its way through its mammoth 667,000 words (the authors were paid by the line, so…). Varney is much more the vampire as we would come to know them. He had fangs, drank blood, and had the powers of hypnotism and superhuman strength. However, he has no problem strolling around in the daylight, nor does he fear crosses or all-you-can-eat garlic bread.
When writing “Carmilla,” Le Fanu drew from works of folklore and “vampire studies” such as the snappily-titled Dissertations sur les apparitions des anges, des demons et des esprits, et sur les revenants et vampires de Hongrie, de Boheme, de Moravie, et de Silesie, written by Augustin Calmet in 1746 (later re-published under the slightly more manageable title The phantom world, or, The philosophy of spirits, apparitions, &c.) and Basil Hall’s Schloss Hainfeld; or a Winter in Lower Styria. Carmilla, like the others, can walk about in the day, though it tires her out quickly and she prefers to sleep late. Crosses and churches have no adverse effect on her. She can mesmerize people, turn into a giant black cat, and dematerialize. It’s possible that the sympathetic nature of Varney was an influence on Le Fanu when he conceived of Carmilla, a bloodsucker who, like Varney, has been cursed with the affliction and doesn’t seem thrilled with her inescapable urge to feed off the living and destroy the innocent.
The lesbianism may give “Carmilla” sensational appeal, but beneath the juvenile tittering of a modern (and probably Victorian) reader is an exceptional example of the vampire tale. One can read a bit of lesbian panic into the text, but one can find just as much lesbian sympathy. After all, it’s usually men who are unnerved by an attraction that dares to not include them. The story has a deceptively languid, lyrical pace that, upon reflection, is actually quite speedy. It is the dreamlike quality that lends it an air of moving more slowly than you think. It is also a sensual, sexy story, even within the confines of what was permissible in the more disreputable corners of mainstream Victorian literature. Le Fanu’s primary motivation is to tell a horror story. The titillation that comes with the territory is secondary, and as a result, more interesting than had it been front and center. Le Fanu accomplished a greater air of eroticism while being circumspect about what he shows than the more notorious and celebrated writers of saucy British literature that would emerge in the coming century (D.H. Lawrence, I’m looking at you). Perhaps it’s because Le Fanu seems to have honest affection for his creations, even the doomed monster Carmilla.
But as to how “Carmilla” relates to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, well…almost none of this matters, because almost nothing of “Carmilla” actually appears in the movie…
Part 2: Continue Your Evil Doings
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s early life predisposed him toward an oddball, contemplative nature. It’s the sort of upbringing that seems like it would be the plot to an Ingmar Bergman film (wrong Scandinavian country, but still). He was born in 1899 to Josefina Nilsson, a Swedish maid. His father was his mother’s employer, a married farmer who gave the boy to an orphanage. Josefina Nilsson became pregnant again a year later, though the father of that child remains unknown, as the distraught young woman died after a desperate attempt to induce a miscarriage by consuming sulfur. The boy spent a couple years in the orphanage before being adopted by a typographer named Carl Theodor Dreyer, after whom the boy would be named. He seems to have had an otherwise normal childhood, all things considered. He was comfortable with his emotionally-remote adopted father, and conflicted over his adoptive mother, who missed no opportunity to remind the boy how lucky he was and how little he deserved what they gave him. Perhaps the most important figure during these formative years was his adoptive maternal grandmother, a woman greatly interested in the occult and who shared with young Dreyer a number of books on the subject, fueling his interest in the supernatural.
At school he was regarded as clever and possessed of a keen if somewhat barbed wit. After school, Dreyer found work as a clerk at the Great Northern Telegraph Company, which he hoped would lead him to a life of travel and adventure. When his supervisor took Dreyer into the basement and proudly showed him mountains of old accounting ledgers — a testament to the man’s lifetime of work — Dreyer was mortified by the thought of being a number cruncher with nothing to show at the end of his life but a basement full of ledgers. He fled the scene. Having narrowly escaped a life of entering numbers into columns and filing them away in a musty basement, Dreyer met and married Ebba Larsen, went on a quest to track down members of his biological family in Sweden (he met with limited success and ultimately found little interest in the relatives he turned up), and finally settled into a career as a journalist specializing in the emerging field of aviation. His passion for covering those early flights, as well as participating in them, earned him a reputation as a daredevil.
He also wrote about another emerging field: cinema. He started a feud in the pages of the sensationalist Ekstra Bladet with Danish actress Asta Nielsen, one of the world’s first international movie stars. Nielsen was lean and boyish, a forerunner of the flapper style, at a time when male ideals of beauty still tended toward the voluptuous. She was also a proponent of cross-dressing androgyny, which would become similarly popular in the 1920s. Her gender-bending enthusiasm extended to her selection of roles. She was famous for appearing in Hamlet not as Ophelia, but as Hamlet him (or her) self. In an article that does not speak terribly well of Dreyer’s sense of feminism, he insulted Nielsen’s androgynous physical appearance by writing, “Is Asta Nielsen-Gad a heroine? Yes, by Gad, she is! Now she has started appearing in men’s clothing without considering that she thereby reveals how dreadfully she was created. Is that not a heroic sacrifice for art?”
Dreyer’s insults had little impact on Nielsen. Though the eroticism and defiance she displayed in her roles — pants! suggestive dancing! a strong will! — kept her on the wrong side of American censors, in Europe she became a superstar. A studio built an entire production facility purely for her. She helped pioneer the introduction of a less exaggerated, more natural style of screen acting. At her zenith she was the highest-paid film star in the world. German producer Paul Davidson described her as “the first artist in the medium of film.” During World War I she remained popular on both sides of the conflict, and in the lead-up to World War II — by which time, like many stars of the silent era, she had retired from the screen — she was wined and dined by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and even Hitler himself, both of whom urged her to return to the screen in Nazi-produced films. Nielsen responded by leaving Germany (where she lived and worked through the Weimar era), returning to Denmark and funneling her money into underground assistance for German Jews. If the price for such a remarkable life was a few jabs aimed at her “boyish” figure from an upstart gossip journalist, it seems a small burden to bear.
His opinion of Asta Nielsen not reflected by the greater portion of the world, Carl Dreyer made the leap from writing about films to writing films in 1913, when he was hired by Nordisk Film to revise and write screenplays. In 1918, he got his first chance to direct, making The Presidents, a film that was notable primarily for the financial demands it put on the studio in order to accommodate Dreyer’s desire for location filming on a remote island. In 1921, he directed his second feature, the sprawling historical-fantastic film Leaves from Satan’s Book. Inspired by D.W. Griffith’s lavish Intolerance, Dreyer’s film was the most expensive production the studio had ever mounted, a fact that didn’t stop Dreyer from demanding even more time and money to indulge his 167-minute epic.
Leaves from Satan’s Book showcases Dreyer’s tendency to portray Christianity with an almost Pagan mysticism about it. Satan (Helge Nissen) has been punished for rebelling against God, forced to wander the Earth collecting and condemning the souls of temptable man. For each person Satan leads into sin, he has another hundred years added to his sentence. For each soul that resists him, a thousand years are commuted. One would think that incentivizes Satan to do a half-assed job, but either mankind is just too corrupt or Satan is just too honest not to do his best. Imbued with the tragic anti-hero nature popularized by the depiction of Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Devil moves through several of history’s most notable atrocities: the crucifixion of Christ, the Spanish Inquisition, the bloody executions during the French Revolution, and the overflow of violence from the Russian Revolution into neighboring Finland.
In each instance, Satan assumes a disguise and offers a key player a chance to not be horrible. In almost each instance, the person say no thanks; being horrible is fine with me. The only person he cannot tempt is the noble Finnish woman Siri, who he confronts with the conundrum of assisting Bolsheviks in ambushing a group of Finnish soldiers or having her husband and child executed. Satan’s one “failure” earns little admiration from God, however, who dismisses the self-sacrifice and honor of Siri and simply commands Satan “Continue your evil doings!”
Leaves from Satan’s Book also showcases one of Dreyer’s most notable predilections: his fondness for close-ups of faces. In The President, Dreyer had shown a keen eye for interesting faces and would often let his camera dwell on them. He would do the same with Leaves from Satan’s Book. In 1928, he took it to the extreme with The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film composed almost entirely of close-ups of human faces. Many directors, as well as audience members, found such shots unnerving and intrusive — something to do, one imagines, with the uncanny valley or the discomfort of having a giant face staring back at you, unflinching, from a movie screen.
Also emerging is Dreyer’s thematic obsession with women made to suffer as a result of male desire and lack of control. He might have said unkind things about Asta Nielsen’s body, but as the orphaned son of a maid impregnated by her callous employer, Dreyer was critical of the role men played in causing suffering for women. Of the four stories in Leaves from Satan’s Book, three are about women suffering at the hands of men: a woman accused of witchcraft by male Inquisitors; Marie Antoinette offered up for execution by a male retainer; and Siri threatened by Bolshevik soldiers. Persecuted women recur throughout his filmography, including first major commercial hit, 1925’s comedic Master of the House, about a maid (his own birth mother, perhaps?) fighting back against an overbearing and uncaring man.
“Carmilla” is a story containing two suffering women. And while Dreyer’s next film, Vampyr, may have ended up having very little to do with “Carmilla,” the movie still features a woman who, while not the express victim of male desire, is nevertheless tragic and oppressed in her own right.
Part 3: A Silent Film with Sound
For Vampyr, Dreyer takes the idea of a female vampire from Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” and a buried alive sequence from “The Room in the Dragon Volant,” but that’s about it. Beyond sharing a gender, nothing about Dreyer’s vampire, Marguerite Chopin, has been drawn from “Carmilla.” Where Carmilla was young and sensual, imposing Marguerite is an elderly crone who yells at cavorting shadows to pipe down. She does prey on a woman, one of Dreyer’s signature oppressed women, but this is not the story of Marguerite Chopin. The main character is Allan Grey, played by French baron Nicolas Louis Alexandre de Gunzburg.
Although not a powerful royal, de Gunzburg was well-known for throwing lavish costume galas to which he frequently invited the luminaries of the Parisian art world. Nicolas himself dreamed of a career as an actor, so when it came to his attention that Carl Dreyer was looking for funding, he made a deal with the director: the film’s budget in exchange for the lead role. Nicolas was a good-looking, well-liked young man, and the film was silent, so Dreyer accepted the offer. Baron Nicolas Louis Alexandre de Gunzburg thus became the actor Julian West.
Production problems began before production itself. By 1930, silent film was out of fashion. Since the beginning of film, technicians had been trying to figure out how to get sound into the pictures. There were experiments here and there — phonographs synced with the film, for example — but for the most part, it was simply too complicated. Silent film remained silent . Sound technology remained the purview of laboratory experiments, one-offs, and later, occasional newsreels. It was in 1927 that The Jazz Singer became the first successful, mainstream feature film with sound. Over decades, the art of silent film had been developed, refined, and perfected. Almost overnight, it became a thing of the past. Rarely has an art form suffered so abrupt and total a collapse.
As sound film technology became better and more common, a number of films found themselves caught in a transitional period. They had been planned as silent films, but now everyone wanted “talkies.” Some, like 1928’s Lonesome, adapted by adding sound effects and limited dialogue scenes surrounded by otherwise silent film. 1929’s Canary Murder Case, starring Louise Brooks and William Powell, did emergency reshoots to turn it into a sound film. It was a process in which Brooks refused to participate. She was in Europe making prestigious movies with G. W. Pabst. In retaliation, the makers of Canary Murder Case used a stand-in for new scenes and dubbed Brooks’ with a grating “why I oughta…!” voice totally unlike her own. Perhaps most famously, Howard Hughes’ epic Hell’s Angels, about the flying aces of WWI was shot, scrapped, reshot, scrapped, and shot once more, first because he didn’t like the special effects and second because he wanted to make his silent film into a sound film.
The sound revolution quickly spread to England, where silent film directors like Alfred Hitchcock (whose 1929 film Blackmail was the first big non-American talkie hit; like many, it had been shot silent then reshot to add sound) proved particularly adept at the transition. But continental Europe was slow to take advantage of sound technology. Early European forays into sound film were timid: a single scene of dialogue or just a song. Critics and filmmakers both were ambivalent about sound, thinking like Sunset Boulevard‘s Norma Desmond that the addition of dialogue would prove to be a corruption of the medium. Vampyr was in pre-production when sound swept the world. Dreyer decided to shoot it largely still as a silent film, with a few lines of dialogue sprinkled through the run-time. What’s more, Dreyer filmed every sound scene in three languages: German, French, and English, so that it could be easily distributed. However, it was clear from the finished product that the dialogue in Vampyr took a back seat to the visuals.
Allan Grey (Julian West) is described in a title card as a man steeped in the study of the occult and wanders the earth in search of mysterious experiences (inspired, some think, by In a Glass Darkly‘s Dr. Martin Hesselius). That might be the earliest example of the “informed attribute,” when a movie insists that a character has a particular skill or trait despite all evidence on screen to the contrary. Allan Grey seems to have no knowledge of the occult or any sort of competency in identifying it or dealing with it. His sole skills seem to be looking in windows and bugging his eyes out in confusion. He proves throughout the film to be little more than a spectator, one who influences nothing and impacts the story only barely — though to be fair, he does show up to hold a couple of wooden planks during the finale.
His aimless wandering brings Grey to an inn where, almost immediately, strange things start to happen. He is visited in the night by a mysterious old man (Maurice Schultz) who, rather than explaining himself (or knocking), wanders into Grey’s room in the middle of the night, makes scary old man faces at him, then leaves after dropping off a package on which he writes “to be opened upon my death.” There’s no reason for any of this mysterious breaking and entering, nor for the man to insist that the package only be opened upon his death. In fact, it’s unclear whether the event actually takes place or is merely a dream. Vampyr is a not film concerned with the sensibilities of a logical world or with explaining why eerie things happen. This is a dreamscape, a story that takes place in the subconscious where things happen for no reason, images appear with no connection to anything else, and the need to make sense doesn’t apply.
Unable to sleep after a creepy old guy came stalking into his room, West goes for a midnight constitutional, coming across a disembodied shadow limping along a river bank. He follows the shadow to a crumbling estate populated almost entirely by shadows that have no source. West eventually finds a slumbering one-legged guard, the owner of the shadow West followed to the house. He sees other shadows, including a gravedigger (who is un-digging a grave), a band, and an assortment of revelers who are eventually chastised for their rowdiness by a stern old woman. The only person who seems to notice West is a mad-looking old doctor (Jan Hieronimko), who sort of…not so much shoos West away as just acts creepy enough that West decides to awkwardly leave of his own accord.
Outside, West once again runs across disembodied shadows, following them to a manor that turns out to be the home of the creepy guy who visited him earlier and his two daughters: Leone (Sybille Schmitz), who is dying of a mysterious ailment, and her younger sister Gisele (Rena Mandel). When West finally has reason to open the mysterious package, he discovers a book about vampirism. In short order, West realizes — ha ha, no, just kidding. West doesn’t realize squat. The butler (Albert Bras) discovers Leone is being preyed upon by a vampire, Marguerite Chopin, and that the one-legged man and the spooky doctor are in her thrall.
Upon its release, audiences booed Vampyr. One unruly crowd stormed the box office of their theater and demanded a refund of their ticket prices. When they were refused, a scuffle broke out. Where The Passion of Joan of Arc failed with audiences but succeeded with critics, the critics were equally as vicious as the crowds in their attacks on poor ol’ Vampyr. Dreyer attempted to salvage his work by recutting and re-releasing it, but to no avail. The film was a bomb. Dreyer’s career was finished. Vampyr was such a resounding failure that Dreyer found it impossible to find funding for another film. He attempted to continue as a screenwriter, but the talkie era and the popularity of musical comedies didn’t quite jibe with his vision.
Unable to get a new project off the ground, Dreyer returned to journalism, working as a film critic and later, after his reviews proved too cranky and negative, as a court reporter covering whatever cases were of interest to him. It wasn’t until 1943 that Dreyer found his way back into the director’s chair with Day of Wrath, a movie that featured another martyred woman and another occult-meets-Christianity atmosphere. It wasn’t a hit. He made one more film, Två människor (Two People, 1945) before transitioning into the realm of short films and documentaries. He wouldn’t make another feature film until 1955’s Ordet, and then not again until 1964’s Gertrud. His health declined rapidly shortly thereafter, though even from a hospital bed and right up until the day of his death in March of 1968, he was still trying to get new film projects off the ground.
Baron de Gunzburg’s acting career was dead on arrival. The production of Vampyr and accompany years of a lavish lifestyle left him near broke (though that’s rich-person “near broke,” which always involves still having way more money and connections than regular-person “near broke.” Still popular with the aristocratic party crowd, de Gunzburg decided to go out in a blaze of glory, throwing one last, massive costume gala, after which — one assumes with a dramatic flourish of a cape — he vanished.
Or at least, he moved to New York and started running with the likes of Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall, Cole Porter, and Coco Chanel. He lived a discreet but openly gay life and soon discovered his true talent: magazine editing. He secured a job at Town & Country, and later at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion editor. He mentored designers Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein and was regarded as one of the most stylish men in the country. In 1971, he was inducted into Vanity Fair‘s Best Dressed Hall of Fame. He was obviously a much better fashion editor than he was investigator of the occult. When he passed away in 1981, he was much beloved by those around him and regarded as one of the most important figures in the fashion world.
Sybille Schmitz, who plays doomed Leone, came into the production having appeared on-screen once before, in the G.W. Pabst/Louise Brooks film, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). As Leone, she spends most of her time in bed, but her one stand-out scene, in which she is beseeched from afar by the predatory Marguerite Chopin, allowed her a chance to show off a mad, wild-eyed, yet childishly enthusiastic smile that made her the measure of even the most deranged of Renfields. Schmitz maintained an acting career after the disaster of Vampyr, but hers was a difficult and tragic road. Considered too “Semitic” looking by the Nazis, she had a difficult time securing roles. Considered too “weird” looking by American studios, she was unable to succeed in the US. The dwindling quality and size of her roles propelled her into a state of depression and drug addiction that, sadly, ended with her suicide in 1955.
Perhaps if it had been released earlier in the decade, Vampyre would have found a home among the Expressionist horrors of early German cinema. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) seem far more the contemporaries of Vampyr than its actual contemporaries. Universal’s horror films were tidier and more scientific (by horror movie standards). Their narratives were straightforward, their plots logical, their characters’ motivations easy to decipher. Although destined to be measured against those films, Vampyr was a wholly different beast, an early indicator of the divergent roads that would be taken by American and European horror. It’s a film like Vampyr that begets the languid dream/nightmare logic we see in films like the bizarre and semi-plotless vampire films of a director of like Jean Rollin. Vampyr is more a procession of haunting surreal images than it is a cohesive film. Audiences, even European audiences, were over that and not yet back into it in 1932, so Vampyr was chased off the screens by a torch-wielding mob and forced to huddle in the misty swamp, hidden away until later generations of film fans could re-evaluate the film. What emerges from those shadows is a film of striking beauty, of magical and otherworldly atmosphere. Though Vampyr couldn’t be modern in 1932, it is substantially more successful at being modern in the 21st century.
Its assembly of gorgeous disturbing images, the number of things that are striking yet have nothing to do with the movie itself , and the burying of a simple plot under layers and layers of mystery and convolution, make watching Vampyr a similar experience to watching a David Lynch film. It plays with many concepts and themes that would surface in Lynch’s work as well, most notably in the weird role of shadows and disembodied doubles, presented not just by the many shadows without physical bodies that roam the strange, fairyland world of Vampyr, but also in the scene in which poor lunkhead Allan Grey is making an earnest attempt to be an action hero, only to trip while trotting across a field, knocking himself unconscious amd causing him to have an out-of-body experience in which he witnesses Gisele being kidnapped and bound by Marguerite and her minions, as well as his own burial. When his spirit finally returns to his corporeal body, some of the events that he witnessed have truly taken place in the waking world. Others, like his horrific live burial, have somehow been averted, probably by the old servant, who has to do everything in this movie.
There are parts of this film that are Impressionistic, thanks to a preponderance of grain in the film stock and gauzy, out-of-focus style of shooting. It turns a normal woods and field into a hazy dream. It reduces human characters to barely discernible smudges floating through a world that truly has been rendered as a dark fairy-tale reflection of our own, where the indecipherable motivations and actions of characters match their physical presence on film and make sense; or at least, where it doesn’t matter if they don’t make sense. Welsh writer Arthur Machen specialized in stories in which the gods, fairies, fauns and nymphs of ancient Pagan culture dance just on the periphery of the perception of the human characters. His novel The Green Round is about a man who visits an ancient Pagan site and finds afterward that he has acquired a second shadow. While nothing of his is specifically used as source material for Vampyr, his stories and this movie are of a like spirit, far more than Vampyr and the beautiful but relatively logical “Carmilla.”
Just as “Carmilla” was only the third major work of vampire fiction, Vampyr was only the third major vampire film, preceded by F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula, though Dracula and Vampyr were neck and neck and should be considered to have come out at the same time. Despite claims of “Carmilla’s” influence, Vampyr is the world’s first wholly original vampire film property. Both Nosferatu and Dracula were adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel. It is now widely regarded, justifiably so, as a masterpiece, albeit one that was out-of-place in its own time. Carl Dreyer’s vision of a dark, supernatural world resulted in a film of profound beauty and an ability to unnerve rather than shock or scare. Like a vampire itself, the movie has the uncanny power to hypnotize the viewer, to pull them deeper and deeper into its murky, macabre procession of images.