Carl Theodore Dreyer (director)
74 minutes (length)
May 30, 2022 (published)
Although now considered a much-loved Gothic classic (a Franco-German co-production filmed entirely in France), this very unique production had a rather rocky start: the film was booed at its German premiere as moviegoers considered the set like far too static. in regards to the acting and the general pacing as at the austrian premiere the audience even demanded their right of entry… all of this led to a big fight with the police when the movie directors refused to spit the refunds!
Admittedly, this expressionist-surrealist work (with a script by Dreyer and Christen Jul) may not be to everyone’s taste – the film draws its strength and expressiveness from the inspired camera work of Rudolph Matés which gives to VAMPYR its dreamlike and nightmarish character, loaded with symbolic meanings and images that – unlike the sparse dialogue – are not easily forgotten. The sparse dialogue was another reason the film was initially received with mixed feelings as Dreyer originally planned to make it as a silent film. However, due to the fact that Tod Browning’s “Dracula” and James Whales’ “Frankenstein” were both released the previous year as hit talkies, the production company (Tobis-Filmkunst) changed its original tune and decided to go with the flow – maybe a mistake. as it soon turned out, seeing how ‘Vampyr’ really would have worked better as a silent film and second – despite the dialogue – there are still plenty of intertitles to be found. Again, this may have had something to do with the fact that the overall dialogue situation proved tricky from the start with the actors (only Sybille Schmitz and Maurice Schutz were professional actors) hailing from France, Germany and Poland while the main The character – the protagonist “Allan Gray” – was played by Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (credited as Julian West), a Frenchman of Russian descent whose family had fled Russia during the outbreak of the October Revolution. Incidentally, it was Gunzburg who offered to fund the project on the condition that he play the male lead. Additionally, bits of dialogue were dubbed into English while intertitles were written in German, French, English, and Danish or simply as needed. The fact that French film studios at the time were still far behind in the use of new sound technologies didn’t help much either.
The plot itself was inspired by two of the five stories found in Sheridan Le Fanu’s “In a Glass Darkly” collection with elements taken from the stories “Carmilla” and “The Room in the Flying Dragon”. Allan Gray (Julian West aka Baron de Gunzburg), a young man drawn to superstitions and the occult arrives at an inn near the French village of Courtempierre to investigate rumors of supernatural happenings in the area. Later that night, he is awakened by an old man who enters his guest bedroom and leaves a small package with the words “To be opened when I die” on the table before walking out with the strange words “She must not not die”. As if in a trance, Gray takes the package and follows strange shadows that lead him down a country road to an old abandoned building where there is a one-legged soldier (Georges Boidin) whose shadow leaves his body, a mysterious doctor (Jan Hieronimko) and an old crone (Henriette Gérard) walk around, as well as witnessing the ghostly shadows of the villagers who once enjoyed dancing in the building.
Other unseen forces pull Gray away from the abandoned building and down more country roads until he comes to an old and beautiful estate. Peeking out of one of the large windows, he recognizes the mysterious man who entered his room at the inn and left the strange package (now in Gray’s jacket pocket) on the table. The man is obviously the owner of the estate but just as Gray is about to knock on the door, he hears a gunshot and sees the old man – now badly injured, collapsing…without a trace. of the author but a shadow that we (the viewers) can see that the assailant was possibly the one-legged soldier! When the servant (Albert Bras) and his wife (N. Babanini) invite Gray in, he arrives just in time to hear the mortally wounded man whisper the words “She must not die” once more – and then he dies. . The two servants ask Gray to spend the night in the house, and in agreeing, he learns the strange story of the deceased’s eldest daughter Léone (Sybille Schmitz) who has long suffered from an unspecified illness – leaving her moreover in weaker. as time goes. Even her younger sister Gisele (Rena Mandel) cannot explain what is wrong with Leone while the nurse (Jane Mora) also tries her best, but to no avail. When the family doctor arrives, Gray recognizes him as the same doctor he saw earlier in the abandoned building on the outskirts of the village. Despite the medication prescribed by the doctor, Leone’s condition worsens… Moreover, she seems possessed by an invisible force and constantly whispers death and damnation. That evening, Gray decides to open the package the dead man had left on the table and finds a booklet on vampirism there. Among a number of superstitious tales, Gray reads of an incident that took place long ago in Courtempierre when a mysterious disease – initially presumed to be the plague – broke out and killed many inhabitants. Some time later, the real cause was revealed to be female ‘vampire’ Marguerite Chopin – described by villagers as ‘a monster even when alive’ who continued to sow fear long after her death.
In the night, Gray is awakened by the cries of Giséles: his sister Léone has been attracted and is now lying half-unconscious on a bench in the huge park. When Gray and the maid take her back to her room, they discover two bite marks on her neck and realize that a vampire is at work…everything begins to connect from the booklet Gray and the maid have read. Meanwhile, the doctor orders Gray to donate blood in order to save Leone although the transfusion leaves Gray completely weakened and he begins to hallucinate. Further investigation reveals that the vampire Marguerite Chopin is none other than the old crone that Gray had previously seen with the doctor and the one-legged soldier in the abandoned building. Gray and the servant come to the conclusion that the one-legged soldier and the doctor are in fact only Marguerite Chopin’s henchmen! When Gray is about to confront the doctor, he overhears him administering poison to Leone. The doctor manages to escape and at the same time kidnaps Gisele, whom he keeps locked up in an old flour mill. Gray and the minion head to the local cemetery to locate Marguerite Chopin’s grave and destroy the undead forever – setting off the film’s tense climax and most surreal sequences such as Gray’s out-of-body experience in the during which he observes his own funeral as a vampire. Marguerite looks at her corpse through a small window in the coffin. After returning to his own body, he and the servant destroy the perfectly preserved corpse of Marguerite Chopin forever by driving a metal rod through her heart – a scene cut short by German censorship! At the same time, Leone wakes up from her unconsciousness and immediately feels better. Now only Giséle must be saved, and the old flour mill serves as the backdrop for the thrilling finale in which – with the help of the murdered squire’s spirit – the doctor and the one-legged soldier meet their well deserved end.
It would be fair to say that VAMPYR has more in common with the surreal short “Un Chien Andalou” by Luis Bunuels than with any horror film in the traditional sense since the symbolism in Dreyers’ work and the setting soft and slightly faded point The camera technique creates an atmosphere in which reality and fantasy merge. The performances are actually secondary as the story is told through the power of the film’s visual compositions and its haunting use of shadows.
Eureka is releasing this brand new restored film in a limited edition (3000 copies only), presented in a cardboard slipcase and a 100-page collector’s booklet. Other bonus features include optional audio tracks, audio commentary, a visual essay on Dreyer’s “Vampyr” and its influences, two new video interviews, documentaries and more.