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Film / Vampyr

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"She mustn't die... do you hear? She's dying, she's dying!"
The Lord of the Manor

Vampyr is a 1932 horror film from the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. The film, a German-French coproduction, was first conceived shortly after Dreyer's previous (and arguably most famous) film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and loosely based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly, most notably the stories Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant. Dreyer's first film with synchronized sound, Vampyr nonetheless was produced much like his previous silent movies, with descriptive intertitles, limited dialogue, and all sound added during post-production. Most of the cast were not professional actors: star and financier Nicolas de Gunzburg was a minor German/Russian (though he had been raised primarily in England and France) who adopted the stage name Julian West in an attempt to break into acting against his family's wishes, and Jan Hieronimko, who played the villainous village doctor, was discovered by Dreyer one night on the Paris Metro.

The story involves Allan Gray, a young student of the occult whose wanderings take him to the village of Courtempierre, France. There he is contacted by a local manor lord, who begs him to ensure that his eldest daughter, Léone, not be permitted to die and leaves him with a mysterious package to be opened in the event of the lord's death. The following day, Allan explores a nearby abandoned castle before traveling to the lord's manor just in time to see the lord shot by an unknown assailant.

Allan, the manor's manservant, and the lord's youngest daughter, Giséle, struggle to save the dying Léone. The village doctor arrives that night and explains that Léone is suffering from severe blood loss. Allan provides his blood for a transfusion, and falls asleep only to be awoken by the manservant. The two interrupt the doctor's attempt to poison Léone and give chase to the perpetrator. As Allan experiences a vision of his own burial, the manservant unearths the grave of long-dead Marguerite Chopin, whom he now believes to be the vampire responsible for Léone's condition.

Vampyr was not well received at its German premiere. When audiences in Vienna demanded their money back and were denied by the theater, a small riot broke out. Although Dreyer went back and made some minor edits before its subsequent French premiere, where it was somewhat better received, the overall press reaction was negative, and the film was a financial failure that led to Dreyer having a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized. Modern critics have been much more receptive to the film, with critics frequently citing it as one of the most effective horror movies of all time, and praising its expressionistic and surrealistic qualities.

Both the original German and French negatives were subsequently lost, and plans to produce an English language version of the film were halted following its poor reception. Most of the surviving copies of the film were of poor quality and/or heavily edited, until restoration efforts in the 1990s and 2000s sought to restore something closer to Dreyer's original vision.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Although the film is inspired by the stories Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly, only the basic plot points of a female vampire and live burial are appropriated. The actual plots and many of the themes (such as Carmilla's lesbian subtext) are completely dropped or altered beyond recognition.
  • Ambiguous Ending: The ending sequence is a bit of a headscratcher. It's not entirely clear whether Léone lives or dies. And what exactly happens with Allan and Giséle, anyway? They are shown climbing onto a boat and getting lost in the fog before disembarking and entering a brightly lit clearing, none of which seems to follow from previous events, before the film abruptly ends. The original script is much less ambiguous (Léone dies, and there is dialogue describing how Allan and Giséle get lost in the fog), but the filmed ending seems to directly contradict the script in several details, so the script can't really be used for clarification. It's not clear whether this was a deliberate Gainax Ending, or if the production just ran out of money.
  • Barred from the Afterlife: Vampires attempt to lure their victims into committing suicide, as doing so will permanently lock them out of heavenly redemption.
  • Bowdlerise: German censors found the death-by-suffocation scene too gratuitous, and forced it to be toned down before release.
  • Cue the Sun: The second to last shot of Allan and Giséle reaching the border of the forest and looking at the sun shining through the trees.
  • Cold Iron: As in the novel version of Dracula (and numerous folklore tales), an iron stake is just as effective at destroying the undead as the traditional oak wood variety.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Why does Allan Gray, a scholar of the occult with a predisposition to believe in vampires, arrive in Courtempierre just in time to foil the vampire's plans and save Léone and Giséle?
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The village doctor dies slowly, being Buried Alive in flour and suffocating in the town's mill.
  • The Dead Can Dance: When Allan visits the local creepy abandoned castle, he is greeted with the image of dancing ghostly shadows.
  • Dead Man Writing: The lord of the manor leaves a "to be opened in the event of my death" package. It turns out to be the book on vampires.
  • Death Is Dramatic: The old maiden gets all dramatic when the manor lord dies.
  • Dies Wide Open: During the Dream Sequence, Allan has his eyes wide open when lying dead in the coffin.
  • Door Handle Scare: Allan is woken from his sleep by a loud and slow knocking on the door. He turns and sees how the key in the keyhole slowly twists around. The door opens and ... an old and confused man stands in his room.
  • Driven to Suicide: Léone speaks openly of her desire to die, and she is almost tricked into doing it when a convenient bottle of poison is left by her bedside.
  • Dream Spying: Allan has a nightmare/vision of his own burial by which he learns the location where Giséle is being held captive.
  • Dub Name Change: Allan Gray is (mistakenly, according to Dreyer) called David Gray in the French language version. This change was carried over to a number of early British and American edits of the film.
  • Einstein Hair: Contrast the town doctor's unkempt locks with Allan Gray's immaculately coiffed 'do.
  • Encyclopedia Exposita: The book on vampires that the manor lord leaves to Allan provides extremely detailed (down to the identity of the vampire who plagues the town) plot-convenient information to both Allan and the manservant precisely when needed.
  • Evil Old Folks: Marguerite Chopin was apparently a nasty piece of work her entire life, and when she died of old age her evil (as well as the church's denial of last rites) caused her to rise as a vampire.
  • Fate Worse than Death: While the heroes do try to save Léone from death, the fact that they ultimately fail is still portrayed as a kind of victory, because they managed to lift the vampire's curse and save her from rising as a vampire herself.
  • The Film of the Book: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly, at least nominally. In reality, the story is largely the original work of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Christen Jul.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Allan Gray is introduced as a scholar (although possibly more of the amateur variety) of the supernatural, and carries himself with the style and manners of the nobility.
  • German Expressionism: One of the last examples of the genre, before the Nazis seized power in Germany and did their best to stamp it out.
  • Ghost Butler: One of the door in the Haunted Castle opens by itself.
  • Ghost Carriage: A driver is sent out in the manor's carriage to fetch the police. Some time later, the carriage returns, with the the driver having bled to death and no police in tow.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Although the presence of the tell-tale vampire bite marks on Léone's neck is a major plot point, the wound itself is never actually shown.
  • Haunted Castle: When the titular vampire's abode is first visited by Allan, it's during a ghostly dance party.
  • Herr Doktor: The villainous village doctor.
  • Horror Hunger: Léone briefly segues into mania as she hungrily eyes her sister before snapping out of it.
  • In-Camera Effects: Dreyer wanted to achieve a mysterious, dream-like quality to the film, and to do so he, at the advice of his cinematographer, held a thin piece of gauss three inches from the camera lens for most shots. Especially noticeable in exterior scenes, which are frequently so blurry than modern audiences often mistake it for a poor quality transfer.
  • Informed Ability: Allan Gray is introduced as a scholar of the occult, but other than serving as an excuse for him to arrive in Courtempierre to begin with, it's never actually relevant to the narrative. He doesn't appear to have much prior knowledge of vampirism, and only appears to learn any of it from reading the book.
  • Left Hanging: The lord of the manor manages to enter Allan's room at the inn despite the door being locked and the key being shown to be inside the room. This is never explained. Neither is the identity of the figure who shoots the lord of the manor.
  • Living Shadow: Allan sees shadows living independent of their owners. This wasn't due to their being vampires, however; the movie simply had a very, very dream-like quality.
  • No Immortal Inertia: Marguerite Chopin is positively identified as the vampire when the heroes open the grave and find the body intact despite having been buried a generation ago. After driving an iron stake through the heart, the body instantly decays to little more than bones and dried skin.
  • No Name Given: In fact, relatively few characters are actually named on screen: Allan Gray, Giséle, Léone, and Marguerite Chopin. Major characters like the manor lord, the manservant, and the town doctor are only named in the script (Bernard, Joseph, and Marc, respectively), and others, like the nurse, aren't even named there.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Léone is immediately healed upon the destruction of Marguerite Chopin.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: The titular vampire is weak not to the traditional Wooden Stake, but an iron one. In addition to the traditional "viral" form of vampirism (victims of a vampire become vampires themselves), it is said that particularly cruel or impious individuals may become vampires after death.
  • The Renfield: The vampire book says that humans that sell their souls to the devil may be assigned to serve a vampire in life, and the vampire in this story appears to have several such human servants, most notably the town doctor.
  • Silence Is Golden: The first half of the film is almost completely silent, with only a handful of lines of dialogue and extensive intertitles. The second half of the movie is a bit talkier, but still unusually quiet for what is nominally a sound movie. There are a couple of practical reasons for this. For one thing, this was Dreyer's first work with sound, and he may have still be uncomfortable with the format. For another, the plan was to produce three different versions of the movie, one in German, one in French, and one in English (though the English-language version was never completed). To facilitate this, the film actually was shot silent, with all dialogue and sound effects edited in during post-production. Keeping the amount of spoken dialogue to a minimum helped keep post-production simpler
  • Surreal Horror: Though less overt than earlier examples of German Expressionist cinema like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, owing in part to the fact that it was mostly shot on location, the heavy use of shadows and soft-focus effects still manage to add a distinct sense of surreality to proceedings.