Vampyr (1932)

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*. How big a disaster was Tod Browning’s Dracula for the whole vampire genre? I don’t care for that film much, in part because of its legacy. It set in stone a certain vision, not only of what a vampire was supposed to look like, but in a number of other ways as well. Stoker’s novel was the text, but Browning’s film gave Hollywood a formula. And formulas are a bad creative legacy.
*. Which is one way of explaining why two of the best vampire movies of all time — Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dreyer’s Vampyr — were made before the Lugosi version had imprinted itself on the tradition (technically, Dracula came out the year before Vampyr, but Vampyr was shot before Dracula was released so there was no question of influence).
*. In fact, this film wasn’t influenced by Stoker either, as it is loosely based on an earlier vampire story (or collection of stories) by Sheridan Le Fanu.

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*. I think everyone who talks about this movie eventually mentions its dream-like quality. And rightly so. I know of few films that so well capture the sense of a dream. The iconic but seemingly random images (the man with the scythe, the nun knitting by the side of the sickbed); the enigmatic pronouncements and writings, the unreal sense of place (Gray just magically appears at different locations that are only separated by forests and rivers); the run-down and mostly desolate settings; the misty photography (about which more later); that sense, bordering on a certainty, that everything we’re seeing means something but we can’t be sure just what, or how to interpret it; and, perhaps most of all, the feeling that absolutely anything might happen next.
*. How is this final effect created? I think mainly through the collapse of cause and effect. The film has a sense of randomness, especially in the opening movements. There is no coherent narrative but rather a progression through a series of set-piece scenes, or just images, with little connection made between them.

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*. To take the most glaring example, perhaps the best known sequence in the film is Gray’s being buried alive. But what’s the point of it? What does it mean? If that entire sequence were to be cut out of the film it would make no difference at all to the story. Nothing that comes before or comes after has any necessary connection to it.
*. As another example of disconnection, note how nobody even asks who the hell Gray is when he shows up at the manor. He’s just suddenly there and everyone accepts him. It’s as mystifying as the appearance of the father in Gray’s bedroom earlier (in his housecoat, no less), only at least then Gray had seemed a bit surprised at the interruption.

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*. And who is Gray, anyway? What is he up to? The introductory scroll describes him as a “dreamer” who has come to the village only as a result of his “aimless wanderings.” Why is he carrying that net around when we first see him? Is he collecting butterflies? Fishing?
*. My impression is that he’s just someone who has fallen asleep.
*. I love, absolutely love, the constantly panning and tracking camera. Dreyer’s use of a dolly here is perfectly placed and timed, and even slyly deceptive at several moments.
*. There are far too many cutaways to the book on vampires. Despite this being his first sound movie, Dreyer still had no idea how to get us this information, or condense it somehow. But he took the book very seriously, considering it to be a character in the movie. When putting together the Danish version he actually printed his own Danish text for filming instead of just using title cards (which is what was recommended).

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*. Marguerite’s single utterance is a call for “Silence!” What is left of the dialogue in the movie is minimal to the point of abstraction.
*. Even at the time the dialogue was seen as stilted. These were the early days of sound, and they were recording in three different languages, but the stiff delivery has an otherworldly character all its own.
*. How many doorways does Gray go through? How many windows does he look in/out of?

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*. A case of vanity filmmaking, with Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who was no actor (like most of Dreyer’s performers), agreeing to finance the movie on the condition that he play the hero. He shows hardly any emotion throughout. Even in the coffin he has the same blank, equine look. But then he is the dreamer of the movie, so perhaps he should look like he’s asleep with his eyes open.
*. The “foggy” effect of the outdoor photography was an accident. When he saw the early rushes, Dreyer liked the look (it was apparently the result of faulty equipment), and decided he wanted the rest of the movie shot the same way. I’m in the minority here, but I think this was a mistake. From our distance, it just looks like the film needs restoration. I don’t think it adds anything, as the clear photography is more than evocative enough.
*. I always thought the giant face appearing at the window was the old lady/vampire Marguerite Chopin, not Gisèle’s father. I’m not sure if that’s significant.
*. On the DVD commentary track Tony Rayns remarks that the James Bond novel Dr. No might have borrowed the scene of the doctor’s death here in the flour mill (in Fleming’s novel the evil Dr. No was buried in guano, but in the film version of Dr. No this ending was changed). I think this is a stretch. A possible inspiration for Dreyer, however, might have been the ending of D. W. Griffith’s short film Corner of Wheat (1909), which was based on Frank Norris’s novel The Pit (1903).
*. In fact the ending was serendipity. Dreyer just happened to be going by a flour mill and thought it looked like something he could use.

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