Vampyr

A typical horror movie has few surprises, so it isn’t very horrifying. A truly frightening movie would have to throw you off-kilter, so you don’t have a chance to relax or become too comfortable with the made-up world. That’s what Carl Dryer’s Vampyr (1932) does. To intensify the sense of foreboding, it continually shifts the ground out from under your feet. It may be the most unusual horror film you’ll ever see.

According to The Cinema of Carl Dryer by Tom Milne, Dryer described his stylistic approach to his crew with these words:

Imagine that we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant the room we are sitting in is completely altered; everything in it has taken on another look; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed and the objects are as we conceive them. That is the effect I want to get in my film.

Released a year after Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi, Vampyr’s vampire isn’t identified until late in the story. Yet Dryer conveys the vampire’s influence right from the beginning using a variety of disorienting cinematic techniques. These techniques include seeing the effect of an action well before its cause, especially through Allan Grey’s (the main character’s) dreams and visions. Dryer often moves the camera independently of the action as though it anticipates something the characters are only vaguely aware of. Similarly, the point of view sometimes shifts oddly. For example, at the beginning of the story, we bounce back and forth between interior and exterior views of the inn. That suggests Grey’s perspective may be too limited to comprehend all that will transpire.

At first glance, these techniques might seem random or amateurish. They are, in fact, quite deliberate. They’re designed to make us question what we see on the screen, just as Grey will need to question the reality around him in order to uncover the evil that has taken hold there. As a counter balance, Dryer uses explanatory intertitles and quotes from Grey’s book on vampires to center the story.

The result is a journey through a supernatural world defined by its own logic and rules that are revealed only as the story progresses. While not entirely successful, Vampyr would be my pick for the most ambitious horror film ever made. It creates both an eerie atmosphere and a parallel sense of psychological dislocation.

Keep in mind that Vampyr was the film Dryer chose to direct following The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In both films, the main character is challenged to stand by a set of beliefs that can’t be proved.

Vampyr
(1932; directed by Carl Dryer; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Tuesday, July 16 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies