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VAMPYR ***

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Starring Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Jan Hieronimko, Sybille Schmitz.

Horror, Germany/France, 74 mins, cert PG.

 

Released in the UK on Limited Edition Blu-ray via Eureka Entertainment on 30th May 2022.

 

As we move further into the decade there are going to be several notable anniversaries for films that were made at the dawn of cinema, most notably for horror audiences the 100th anniversary of F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU this year. However, 2022 also marks 90 years since Carl Theodor Dreyer’s VAMPYR, a surreal and dreamlike tale that, like NOSFERATU ten years before it, expanded on the popular tropes of the bloodsucker and transcended what we would now call the ‘traditional’ vampire movie.

 

Although VAMPYR had been in pre-production for a few years before cameras rolled in 1930, it was 1931s DRACULA – produced by Universal and based on the stage play – that gave the template for the vampire movie going forward, defining what the public would associate with vampires forevermore, and so when VAMPYR hit screens in 1932 it felt like a very different beast to Universal’s smash hit, being less theatrical, and gloomier and more dreamlike. It also didn’t have a central performance like the one Bela Lugosi gave for Universal, who by this time were eyeing up other monsters to add to their collection. Like DRACULA, VAMPYR also has literary beginnings, as the movie is based on a series of stories from J. Sheridan Le Fanu's IN A GLASS DARKLY collection from 1872.

 

But despite not being hugely popular at the time VAMPYR did – and indeed, still does – hold a power all of its own, and since we’ve had 90 years to grow to appreciate it Eureka Entertainment have seen fit to give it a lavish anniversary package in their Masters of Cinema collection, alongside the likes of NOSFERATU, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and THE HANDS OF ORLOC, which is classy company to be in.

 

The main character is Allan Gray (Julian West), a student of the occult who wanders into the village of Courtempierre and secures himself digs at the local inn. Allan is visited by an elderly man (Maurice Schutz) in the night who leaves Allan a package that is only to be opened in the event of the old man’s death, after which Allan is led by shadowy apparitions to an old castle where he becomes involved with an elderly woman and a doctor before encountering the old man again.

 

After witnessing the old man’s murder Allan opens the package to discover that he has been left a book called ‘The Strange History of Vampires’. He begins reading and discovers that the old man’s daughter Léone (Sybille Schmitz) has become the victim of a vampire, leading Allan to help the family fight the evil that has cursed them.

 

One of the first ‘talkie’ movies after DRACULA, writers Carl Theodor Dreyer and Christen Jul wisely keep dialogue to a minimum, using title cards to give exposition and the actors only saying a few words to keep the plot going, and it works much to the movies credit, unlike the stilted DRACULA, where there were awkward silences between lines as the actors and director were more used to acting on the stage and not in front of a camera with the pace needed for a movie. VAMPYR relies more on atmosphere, stark imagery and some inventive camera techniques to keep things engaging, creating a sense of the uncanny that is as enchanting as it is unsettling. There is no central Bela Lugosi or Max Schreck monster to speak of, the evidence of Léone’s vampiric nature represented by a disturbing facial expression from Sybille Schmitz as she looks up at her next potential victim (it is on the Blu-ray cover but as an out-of-context still), and it is these small but intriguing touches that remain in the memory; not necessarily horrific like Max Schreck’s rat-like features but certainly just as creepy.

 

For its UK Blu-ray debut Eureka have given VAMPYR a 2K restoration that, thanks to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s original filming techniques (he and cinematographer Rudolph Maté apparently put gauze over the cameras to create the weird, off-kilter atmospheres), doesn’t really add any polish or sharp edges and keeps a lot of grain but the blacks are very black, making the use of shadows very effective, especially in the scene where a man’s shadow seems to walk around by itself, which looks like something out of a dark Disney fantasy tale. You also get two audio commentaries - one by critic and programmer Tony Rayns and the other by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who is a superfan of the movie – and a visual essay by scholar Casper Tybjerg, an informative interview with author/critic Kim Newman, two interviews with music and cultural historian David Huckvale, a 1966 documentary about Carl Theodor Dreyer, deleted scenes, interviews and a 100-page book featuring all manner of writings about the movie, its stars and creators, all housed in a hardbound slipcase featuring Sybille Schmitz’s maniacal grin. Don’t say Eureka don’t give you your money’s worth!

 

This wonderful edition of VAMPYR is as definitive as you are going to get, and as the set is limited to 3000 copies it is one for the true connoisseurs to collect. As a movie, VAMPYR slots right in the middle of the other two notable vampire movies from the era, being much more interesting than DRACULA but not as terrifying as NOSFERATU, and unfortunately not being as iconic as either. Nevertheless, at 90 years old VAMPYR remains a unique and very strange take on the vampire mythos, and thanks to this release it will continue to create nightmares for generations to come.

 

Chris Ward

 

 

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