Welcome to the Soothsayer’s Weird Wednesday. I’m not the Soothsayer. For the month of November, I will be filling in on Wednesdays to allow our host to get that sleep he never gets and to bring you a different flavor of review. I’ll be taking a look into my own crystal ball to bring you my version of the truth, tying it into either a special say that arrives that week or a movie release on the Friday. Thanks for reading and enjoy.
This Friday sees the release of THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 1 so I thought I’d take the opportunity to reacquaint myself with vampires on film. I went back to the beginning to an era before Stephenie Meyer made them sparkle and Anne Rice made them loveable. I went back to when they were creatures of horror and myth and, at least in this case, filmed in black and white.
I thought about reviewing NOSFERATU, which is the father of vampire movies – it gave us the rat-like Count Orlock, based off of Count Dracula, and remains one of the greatest vampire films of all time – but another review of NOSFERATU would help nobody. If you know vampire movies you already know all about F.W. Murnau’s Classic. Next I considered Bela Lugosi’s turn as DRACULA but it, too, is a classic. It, along with Universal’s other monsters, helped build a studio empire. Again, if you’re a fan of horror classics you can recite Bela’s, “Good evening,” with a perfect accent.
No, this week I’ve embraced the soothsayer’s Weird Wednesday moniker and gone with a lesser-known film in VAMPYR, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. VAMPYR came out in 1932, 10 years after NOSFERATU and a year after DRACULA, though it was filmed at the same time as the latter, and like the others follows the exploits of a group who are beset by a supernatural presence. The plot is very simple. Allan West (Julian West) is a traveler who stops for the night in a small Hamlet called Courtempierre. He finds his way to a manor where a girl lies dying and her family, the employees and the locals struggle to help her. It is decided that the girl is suffering from the attentions of a vampire and they set out to destroy the creature.
Obviously it is not the plot of VAMPYR that makes it memorable but the style and mood that Dreyer employs. The movie mimics the surreal nature of dreams and, more importantly, nightmares. A fog seems to encroach on the picture, very few words are spoken aloud yet everything is understood and imagery is everywhere. Dreyer even plays with the timeline and reality by having extended dream sequences – one especially stands out by showing a burial from the point of view of the dead person.
For the first half hour the film raises question after question but takes its time knowing that the answers will come. It allows the supernatural to take root and grow until the entire film is hidden in the shadows, shadows literally being the object of attention for a period, and the threat creeps into the edges of every shot.
VAMPYR plays with the mythos of the vampire. Yes, they stick to the stake through the heart, night dweller of old but Dreyer adds another layer to the legends. The creature, we’re told, belongs to the devil, as do its helpers who have lost their souls in one way or another. This is not a sexy vampire story.
There is no foreign accent to make a woman melt. There is no brooding stare, glittering chest, or guilty conscience. The vampire is a thing to be killed before the entire town is infected. The men who aid the vampire are just as guilty and punished for their sins as well. This is a horror story.
Dreyer created a nightmare on film with VAMPYR. He was a forerunner for directors like David Lynch who take small towns and lay a rotten core beneath a pristine exterior but give us plenty of symbolism to know that something is not quite right. This is a film where there are horrors beneath the surface even though every frame is a work of art.
(4 out of 5)