Throwback Thursday: 'Vampyr' (1932)

This Thursday, we’re throwing it back – WAY back.

In the 1920s, Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer was mostly known for his early, more religious works, including the silent classic ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc.’ Not wanting to be typecast as a “religious” director, he decided to tackle Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic vampire novella “Carmilla,” originally published way, way, WAY back in 1872. Together with Danish writer Christen Jul, in 1932 they crafted a script for their first foray into both horror and the world of sound: ‘Vampyr.’

Allan Gray arrives near dusk at the village of Courtempierre. After repeatedly knocking on the door of an inn, he rents a room for the night and settles in. He’s awakened during the night by a strange old man entering his locked room, mysteriously telling Gray that “she must not die,” then setting a packet on a table in Gray’s room with the ominous words “To be opened upon my death” written across the top before leaving.

Confused yet intrigued, Gray takes the packet and pursues the old man out into the night, but loses track of him. Instead, he spies a mysterious shadow running through the trees and follows it, stumbling upon a castle inhabited by an elderly woman. As he quietly tries to leave the castle without being noticed, Gray runs into the village doctor who is paying a late-night visit.


Finally free of the castle, Gray begins the walk back to the inn, coming across a manor along the way. While peeking through the windows of the manor, he spies the same old man who had been in his room, but before he can speak with him, the old man – who happens to be the lord of the manor – is shot by persons unknown. A servant allows Gray into the manor, asking Gray to stay while he goes to fetch the doctor and the police. While comforting the lord of the manor, Gray meets Léone, one of the lord’s two daughters and learns of the strange disease affecting both girls.

Before the doctor arrives, the lord passes away. Gray opens the mysterious packet and discovers the truth behind what’s happening to Léone and her sister, along with the means to destroy the demon once and for all. But will he be able to stop it in time?

The slow pacing and lack of what you’ve come to expect from a vampire film – blood, fangs, scares – make this feel more like a lengthy art film rather than a horror film. In fact, it doesn’t feel like a vampire tale until near the end of the film, when the vampyr and its cohorts are finally dealt with. Perhaps that’s unfair to say, considering when the film was made, but two other vampire films from about the same time shaped cinematic views on the vampire and offered plenty of chills: ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) and ‘Dracula’ (1931).

The only character who provokes any sort of feeling is Giséle, Léone’s sister who suffers from a mysterious bleeding wound on her throat. When she cries out about “The blood! The blood!” then spies her sister in the room, the hunger and bloodlust ooze from her gaze as she closely follows Léone backing away and out of the room. Genuinely creepy. On the flip side, Gray and Léone act like walking automatons, going through the motions in a mechanical fashion, lacking any kind of facial expression to hint at what they’re feeling. Even the elderly woman – the vampyr – never provokes any feelings of terror with her dull, emotionless face. I don’t need to see fangs or claws, but give me something to show that a menace exists within her.

Questions abound in the plot.  Why did the old man – the lord of a manor – enter Gray’s locked room located at an inn not too close to his manor? I could understand if the old man was staying at the inn, but this just left me scratching my head. The film suffers other such instances early on that don’t fit and feel as if they are there simply to have the characters move from point A to point B and damn the explanation.

For its time, ‘Vampyr’ employed some fairly decent effects, such as the disembodied shadows that dance along walls or run along a mirrored lake, giving them a life of their own separate from their human hosts. Watching Gray’s dream self-explore the castle to unlock its secrets proved effective as well. But the creepiest effect was a simple camera shot providing Gray’s perspective from inside a coffin looking up through a glass pane. Trapped inside a coffin, knowing it’s being carted to some cemetery for burial and unable to do a thing about it – very unnerving. On the other hand, the presentation suffers from being shot mostly as a silent film. It’s almost as if Dreyer feared the sounds from the actors and kept speaking to a bare minimum. When sounds do appear, they seem jarring and disruptive to the film. Having to read quite a bit, especially when Gray opens the packet to discover a book, doesn’t make for a great movie experience, either. The font used for the inter-titles was small, gothic, ornate, and black set on a white background – think of the last few lines of letters on an eye chart, how the white and black sometimes blur together. Very difficult to read.

From a historical aspect, ‘Vampyr’ provides an interesting look at early movie-making and the introduction of recorded sound on film. Is it scary? Well, let’s just say that you won’t need to leave the lights on when you go to bed after viewing this one.