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A human soul in fear of death,
This review is from: Vampyr [Masters of Cinema] [DVD]  (DVD)
The rat-toothed Nosferatu and the charming Transylvanian Count are the best known examples of early vampire movies, mostly because there weren't very many others at the time.
But more often than not, "Vampyr" gets passed over when you talk about early vampire movies -- and that's a shame. Carl Th. Dreyer's masterpiece (loosely based on the works of J. Sheridan Le Fanu) is a straightforward little story wrapped in a hazy cocoon of dreamlike imagery and haunting direction. From the very beginning, this movie clings to you like a spiderweb.
Occult student Allan Gray is staying at a hotel in the French countryside. But after being woken by a strange old man's cryptic warning, he finds that the inn is swarming with eerie supernatural happenings, including shadows that move independently. After he departs, a strange old man lets an ancient crone out of a closet.
And when Allan arrives at a nearby chateau, he finds that the owner has been murdered, and his daughter Leone is suffering from mysterious wounds. After the girl is rescued from a strange old crone, she begins acting predatory toward her sister Gisele -- and the weird old doctor says that only a transfusion will save her. But the doctor is in league with the vampire -- and is working to destroy Leone...
"Vampyr" has a pretty simple storyline, loosely based on a couple of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's short stories (including the classic "Carmilla"). But it's not the plot that makes this movie a classic -- it's the powerful, ghostly visuals that permeate it. And the beautiful real-life settings (the inn, chateau and church) don't hurt the atmosphere of it all.
In many ways, "Vampyr" is like a silent movie -- the characters are quiet, text cards intersperse the scenes, and several minutes are taken up by printed text from the "History of Vampires" book. In addition to this, the visuals are so powerful that it's almost a shock when one of the characters actually speaks out loud. Even then, nobody says anything unless it's actually necessary.
Dreyer films this movie as if it were a choreographed dream, letting the camera drift through ornate rooms and hazy hills. And he often fixed on striking images -- pale feverish faces, still windvanes, cloudy skies, scythes, and the movement of shadows on walls and the ground. And there are some spectacularly creepy moments, such as when Leone starts baring her teeth gleefully at Gisele, or Allan watching the view from inside a coffin.
And he steeps the entire movie in dreamlike effects -- hazy countrysides, skeletons, floating girls, and shadows that can dance and move independently. These strange effects are done almost effortlessly, adding to the feeling that you're surrounded by the unreal. Dreyer even puts a note of humor in from time to time, such as the dancing shadows with their little folk band.
Julian West (aka Nicolas de Gunzburg) does a pretty solid job as our unflappable hero, although I question how his suit remains pristine all through the movie -- and he does a glorious job in that bizarre dream sequence. Sybille Schmitz has a small part, but is wonderfully feral as she starts to turn vampiric, and Henriette Gérard is unspeakably creepy as the ancient, stone-faced vampire who wants other people to suffer as well.
Criterion is apparently giving "Vampyr" the treatment it sorely needs, cleaning up the prints in an effort to restore the clarity. It's also got new subtitles, loads of information about Dreyer, his filmmaking and the creation of "Vampyr," articles about it, the screenplay and one of Le Fanu's short stories. Nice to see this underrated little movie is getting the attention is deserves.
Carl Th. Dreyer's "Vampyr" is a rarity among vampire movies -- all haunting images and ghostly, subtle horror, with excellent acting and exquisite directions. It's a cinematic classic that should not be overlooked.