Vampyr (1932)

Horror films have transformed an awful lot since the 1920 appearance of the great granddaddy The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Now, as we settle down with a box of popcorn, the lights yawn to darkness and the projector flickers to life, we ready our mental checklist; sudden bangs, creepy music, evil incarnate and blood by the bucket load.

Though a generalisation, modern cinema goers have a clear concept of a horror movie a million miles from the genre standard of the 1930s. A multitude of factors from technical issues to perceived common decency restrained horror, and forged a style that was brooding, creeping, oppressive, in a word, Gothic.

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Vampyr is Carl Theo Dryer’s turn at horror, a tale of a strange man with a stranger obsession in the strangest town. Upon arriving in the hazy district, Allen Gray discovers odd occurrences which lead him to believe that the town is in the grip of vampirism.

As far as plot goes, that is about it.

Instead, Vampyr is a purely visual experience, drawing deeply upon the gothic origins the Troubled Three, Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. These writers captured the nightmares of the public and sold it back, creating a tumult of copy cat novels, endless stage adaptions and filmic interpretations, inspiring filmmakers as early as Melie’s 1896 short Manor of the Devil, defining Universal studios, and obsessing Roger Corman.

Dryer absorbs the gothicism of the original sources but produces his own spin. Perhaps wisely straying from Todd Browning’s ultra vampire landmark Dracula which premiered only a year before. Dryer’s interpretation is heavily surrealistically and beautifully cinematographic. One particular bold image is that of a man in black facing out over misty water, in one hand is a giant scythe whilst the other ominously rings a bell. 

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Though Vampyr flows dreamily and is decorated with exquisite imagery, its weakness is the surrealism which has permeated every aspect. In The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, Joan and her persecutors are known only as deeply as their starkly captured faces. Yet despite Joan’s views, the cultural division, lack of background information and separation of hundreds of years, we can empathise and connect with Joan’s plight as a human.

Vampyr’s weakness is character. Allan Grey should be our life ring in a tide of surrealism, but his character is so flat and shapeless, the attention sinks. Without empathy, feelings of horror and impossible. This blame may not be put wholly upon Dryer, his cast was formed of non-professionals, including a lead who was in fact the backer of the picture, on the condition of receiving a starring role.

It is not that surrealism and vampirism cannot co-exist blissfully. Vampires are by nature surreal in their flaunting of physical laws, which in itself is terrifying. But, by plunging everything and everyone in to surrealism lessens the blow of horror. Without humans, there are no monsters.

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Vampyr is a photographic triumph and a worthy attempt at straying from a culturally beloved vampire that engrossed pop culture for eighty years and counting. Sadly, Dryer’s gauze which diluted light for a hazy effect penetrated further than he anticipated, leaving a painful ‘what if’ on a much beloved sub-genre.

Classic Moment… 

Allen Gray pursues a shadow dancing and careening through a mill. Finally, it approaches a pensive man sitting on a bench. The shadow mimics the position and as the man is called away, the shadow remains attached as if always there.

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