As our showcase of early horror classics continues, we move out of the silent era and into the early 1930s for this German/French production from legendary filmmaker Carl Theodor Dryer. A Danish director best known for his 1928 classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer caught major critical backlash for his follow-up Vampyr (also his first sound film), due to its unconventional story structure and abstract, dreamlike visuals. Thankfully, Vampyr went on to become a cult classic, which is still being screened today; one of the coolest of these revivals took place last October at San Francisco's Silent Movie Theatre, with a new live score composed by Steven Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees and featuring FEARnet fave artist Jill Tracy (read more about it in this interview).
Loosely based on two short stories by J. Sheridan Le Fanu – whose writings have inspired many iconic horror films – Vampyr follows the nightmarish journey of occult researcher Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg, who also produced the film), who receives a mysterious book detailing the dark secrets of supernatural creatures known as vampyres. While Gray tries using this new knowledge to save a woman named Léone (Sybille Schmitz), whom he believes to be enslaved by one of these demonic beings, he is also plagued by visions and nightmares – the creepiest of which shows him being buried alive.
Vampyr's production overlapped the release of Tod Browning's Dracula in 1931, and Dreyer did draw some inspiration from Bram Stoker's novel and the popular stage play, but Vampyr is nothing like its well-known Hollywood counterpart. Instead, it derives most of its themes from Le Fanu's 1872 tale Carmilla (also the basis for Hammer Films' steamy girl-on-girl vampire classic The Vampire Lovers and its sequels, as well as the 1960 Roger Vadim film Blood and Roses). But it lacks a clearly defined villain – we don't see the vampyr until late in the film – and the story abandons a traditional plot structure, instead following the logic of dreams. The hazy, soft-focus look and artistic compositions are so haunting that film buffs today compare Vampyr to the works of Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau – but at the time of its release, it was rejected by critics and audiences alike. Since then, opinions have done a complete 180, and it's widely regarded as a masterpiece today.
While the original prints of the film have been lost, there have been many attempts to restore Vampyr for home video – the most successful being Criterion's 2008 DVD release, which is still widely available. Watch it in a totally dark room and let it carry you away in its spell...