A man arrives at an inn. He is brought into a spooky, terrifying world that he didn’t expect. We discover the bizarre and disorienting experiences as he discovers them, and so the seventy-five-minute fantasy of disorienting images, bizarre angles, and creepy moments barrels along at a surprisingly swift pace. Based on the short story Carmilla from Fanu’s Through A Glass Darkly, this film does a lot of really cool postmodern tricks in a relatively short period of time. This is the first sound picture that Carl Theodor Dreyer made, and while it did not see commercial success at the time of its release, the Schneider book notes that this film is an excellent introduction into why “many critics regard him as possibly the greatest of all filmmakers.”
We watched Vampyr on Criterion DVD #437, and enjoyed many of the extensive special features, essays, and other writings contained in the package.
I have a particular fondness for watching many of these much older films. The level of craft and creativity that goes into achieving the special effects makes watching this films enjoyable on two levels – first for the narrative and acting itself, and second for puzzling over how they were able to achieve certain features or scenes in the film. This film is brilliantly crafted. At times this film seems to have been overexposed. Some of the movie’s portions are grainy while others portions are blurry, but these elements all add a dreamy nightmare quality to the film.
The movie takes place in a small French village. Allan Grey rents a room at a small inn. During the night, a strange man enters his room, then leaving a package with instructions that it should be opened upon his death. Allen gets out of bed and begins searching the area for answers and an explanation. He walks to a nearby estate and find the man and his family. A vampire has bitten one of them. This is where the narrative really begins to pick up speed and story lines start to connect. For me, there were times in the film that I found the story confusing or somewhat hard to follow, but I also liked that this movie made me really think critically about the characters and the actions, and question what is reality and what was not.
My favorite aspects of this film were in many ways the technical elements that seemed incredibly ahead of its time. I was literally shocked at the various methods of Dreyer’s use of camera angles, aperture tricks, use of architecture and shot composition, the varying point of view, the bizarre and completely immersive narrative structure and continuity, and a hundred other little details that are magnified in this little brilliant package. I was literally in shock at the marvels of this film, gasping at moments that were just mind-blowing for the time (and for all time). I had two very memorable takeaways from the film. The first was one long shot that followed every character when the young Gisele was being carried into the house about two-thirds of the way through the film. In one perfectly orchestrated shot that lasted about a minute, the camera comes indoors and follows them carrying her through the house and capturing every character’s reaction and preparation. The other was the use of perspective and special effects concerning the coffin point of view near the end, and then the use of overlay and jump cuts to do some really impressive things. I thought that it was also kind of bizarre that there was one place that the film was strangely off, but it was likely the period – the use of the book as a narrative piece in a sound film. Maybe it bridged the gap between silent films and talkies, but man was it awkward and inconsistent at times. Still, if it is the bridge, it works. The soundtrack and titles were spectacular.
I also decided to read Carmilla since it came with the DVD, and posted the following review to Amazon and Goodreads…
I read this book, as well as the liner essays, to coincide with a post on a blog I am writing with my wife called “before we die films” on WordPress where we discuss the relevance and impact that the “1001 films to see before you die” has on us. This book (and essays) contained a great deal of material that all had separate sort of things to say about them, and our review for the film is over at the blog.
First, the screenplay to Vampyr was excellent. It was well written and interestingly different than the film in a lot of cool ways. The prose within was definitely worth including in the Criterion DVD. The film is a little unclear at times based on what is happening (but it IS absolutely beautiful), so it is interesting to look at what the intended choices were going to be to see it executed on the screen. It is also interesting the differences in what they wanted to make versus what the final product looked like, including the ending, the addition of the dogs which were central to the piece, and other stuff that didn’t make it.
Carmilla was an interesting and beautifully written piece that differed from the film in many, many ways. It is easy to see how the director used it in his work, but it is also clear that there is a huge difference. What I found fascinating about this novella is its really cool narrative structure, bouncing between first-person and then frame-narratives to drive the plot forward. The other-worldliness is also engaged through spooky diction and a strange unclear queer relationship between the main characters of the piece. I thought it was incredibly edgy and raw for a Victorian story, and while I have very little experience with vampire tales, this one is simply a very well written story that happens to have a bizarre vampire story as its centerpiece. Without giving too much away, the final scene where the tale ended made my skin crawl and engaged a hearty gross-out laugh. My wife asked, “what?” My only response was, “you don’t want to know, but it was awesome.” A great reading experience.
Le Fanu’s “Vampyr’s Ghosts and Demons”…
This essay was on many of the technical aspects of the film that I was not aware of, including the history of its genesis, its reception, and how it fits into the career of the artists involved. Fascinating.
Newman’s “Vampyr and the Vampire”…
This was my favorite essay, mainly because of my background as an English major. Essentially it is a history of the genesis of the vampire itself, and how the novel was brought to the screen taking Carmilla and the history of the trope into consideration. Really enlightening and added a lot to the experience of the film and the novella.
Koerber’s “Some notes on the Restoration…”
I mean, interesting considering the fact that huge chunks of the film are missing and the audio did not match up with what they had. What I found really crazy as I watched was the fact that some of the restoration work made the film look significantly newer than it is. Quite an achievement.
Weinberg and Weinberg’s “interview with Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg” …
This was also my favorite part as I learned the most from this essay. This includes the insane filming schedule, the casting choices, how the film was funded, and a lot of other really cool facts about the film through the mouth of one of the central characters of the film even happening. Again, a really fascinating read.