When I was a kid, I was fed a steady diet of classic (and not-so-classic) monster movies every Saturday and Sunday afternoon with back-to-back commercial TV presentations in a time block known as Double Shock Theater. These could be science fiction or horror, and they typically reserved the very best — the Universal classics — for October. Usually it was a Hammer film or one of the many It Came From… titles that featured giant animals or bug-eyed monsters, as those were cheap enough to acquire in bulk. I lived for these movies. On those other five days of the week, trips to the local library led me down the rabbit hole to discover other movies like this through books, which in turn led me to the original books these movies were based on. This is how I discovered the likes of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Somewhere in my early teens, I started digging deeper into the more esoteric portions of the archives. I acquired a fairly comprehensive book on vampires that introduced me to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a story that, as it turned out, was already familiar to me via two Hammer films from the 70s starring Ingrid Pitt. (Note to self: I really should review those for this blog in the near future.) It was that book that featured images and a brief write-up on early German vampire movies, two of which stood out: 1922’s Nosferatu and 1932’s Vampyr. Nosferatu has long since become one of my all-time favorites. Vampyr, on the other hand… I’ve waited 30 years to see this film. 30 years.
And now, at long last, I can finally scratch this one off the to-see list.
I recently acquired Vampyr on Blu-ray, part of The Criterion Collection releases, completely restored and remastered as far as this sort of thing can go. I found it quite by accident while scouting around at Barnes and Noble, and, knowing that I could knock a third off the price tag through Amazon, I ordered a copy of it on my phone right there in the store. Sorry, B&N, but I’m poor, and you’re expensive. This is a big part of why your brick and mortar stores are tanking. While waiting for the film to arrive, I decided that I needed to do some proper background research on it, seeing as how I just knew I’d end up blogging about it as part of Project: Monster. It was pre-ordained!
The very first thing I learned in that research is that Vampyr is loosely based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly. That is to say, it heavily draws upon Carmilla, but uses elements borrowed from the other stories in the anthology. Or so it claimed. The film draws exactly one element from one other story. One. At any rate, the book was another one of those oversights because I’d read Carmilla multiple times, but not the entire anthology. I corrected that just this week, specifically in preparation to watch Vampyr.
My first instinct is to say I shouldn’t have bothered, except that I really enjoyed that book. I’m kicking myself for not having read the entire thing back when I first discovered Carmilla. Even so, the movie should not say “based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly.” It should say “inspired by drugs taken while attempting to decipher someone else’s half-assed, second-hand notes of something similar to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly.” Which, I suppose, is really no surprise considering this is German Expressionism from 1932, so visuals reign over story every time. We’re talking the last vestiges of the Weimar Republic, right before Hitler got into power. I’ve seen many German Expressionist films from the Weimar era, but admittedly they’re all silent films. They were also a lot closer to the source material in all cases than this film could claim to be. This one was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a Danish director best known for his silent films (I particularly enjoy his 1928 classic The Passion of Joan of Arc). It just happens that Vampyr is the first film he did with sound. And it turns out that he had to make the film in three languages, so it was easier to get around this problem by having minimal dialogue. In other words, it’s this close to being a silent film. Visually, there are plenty of elements in common with the likes of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, which is no surprise. That film inspired all manner of horror films. Not too shabby for something that was never supposed to exist in the first place. But the big question mark hanging over Vampyr is when you line up the time line and realize that when it was being made, Tod Browning’s Dracula and its Spanish counterpart (filmed at the same time, on the same stage) were first run in the theaters when Vampyr was being filmed. It’s really difficult not to see the visual influences from both Nosferatu and Dracula. And yet, I’m sad to say it’s nowhere near as powerful as either one of those movies. Audiences at the time agreed. Germany’s audiences gave it a largely negative reception, and the French debut wasn’t much better. It’s only over time that horror fans discovered the film and gave it more of a welcome into the lexicon. Not that it’s unwatchable. Quite the reverse, Vampyr is a gem of a movie for serious film students or for people who love old German horror movies, visually speaking. There are some shots that are strong enough to burn into your mind, usually the ones involving some kind of shadow work. Indeed, I thought more than once that I’d seen some of them before. Some of them I’m sure I’ve seen in still shot from various books over the years. But there were a few scenes that I’d swear I’ve seen before in their entirety, though I don’t know how that’s possible. The feeling of déjà vu ran rampant for me while watching this. It’s just that there are a lot of movies that are so much better. Audiences who remembered Nosferatu or Dracula would definitely have compared this film, and Vampyr would suffer by comparison. It’s sort of the same experience audiences would later have with Disney’s The Black Hole. It’s not a bad little movie on its own. It’s just that Star Wars was that indomitable for all the right reasons. It really is that same level of comparison here. Actually, I’ll correct myself here. The Black Hole still holds up.
I suppose this is the part where I should discuss what the film is about, seeing as how knowledge of the source material will tell you nothing of what ended up on screen. Our protagonist is Allan Gray (Julian West), a student of the occult who enters the village of Courtempierre, a dot on the map under the curse of a vampire. When we first see him arrive, he’s lugging around a giant butterfly net, so his credibility as an occult investigator is right out the window from the very first shot. I can’t make that up. He spends most of the movie staring dumbfounded at the locals he encounters, and it’s through his eyes that we attempt to piece together anything resembling a plot. The plot is informed not from what he sees, but from what he reads, which breaks down the legend and rules of vampires as we need to know them for this film and gives us the obligatory “they say” rumors of an old crone of a vampire named Marguerite Chopin, complete with step by step instructions on how to destroy her. The “not Dr. Van Helsing” in this film turns out to be in league with the vampire, and it’s through his watchful scientific observations that the girl in distress gets weaker. This prompts the local priest to go dig up and destroy Chopin in her grave while Gray comes out of some fever dream about being buried alive (borrowed from one of the other stories in Le Fanu’s book) just in time to watch. Then the “not Van Helsing” character gets his by being trapped in a cage by accident at the bottom of a mill, buried alive in flour when the mill is activated.
It’s mind-numbingly stupid to describe it, and most modern audiences who’ve never seen a movie like this would probably not finish it, let alone give it a second thought. But, as I say, it’s the visuals that make this film what it is. It’s just that Nosferatu is SO much better in every way conceivable. It is a classic, after all. Besides, I’ve seen far worse than Vampyr. Every horror fan knows you have to wade through a couple thousand bad vampire films to find a good one. This one averages out to something better than the vast majority of them out there. Funny how that works.
I won’t say I regret the experience of this movie. I’m actually quite happy to own it, and I’ll likely watch it a couple more times just on account… later. It’s not ever going to find its way into the perpetual mix with the better movies of its era, and I dare not call it a classic. But I suspect this one’s going to get a grin for the wrong reasons when I do dig it up again. Some movies are like that.