Vampyr [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (2nd May 2022).
The Film

The listless wanderings of dreamer and occult enthusiast Allen Gray (Julian West, actually Paris-born future fashion icon Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg who also funded the film) takes him one evening to the lonely village of Courtempierre and the inn where he takes a room for the night. His sleep is disturbed by strange voices and sights capped by the intrusion into his room of an old man in a dressing gown (Napoleon's Maurice Schutz) who implores to him "She must not die" and leaves him a package to be opened upon his death. Unable to sleep, Allen explores the village, happening upon a warehouse where he witnesses dancing shadows connected to no bodies, a peg-legged gravedigger who also moves independently of his shadow, a frightening old crone (Henriette Gérard) who seems to have magical command over the shadows and wild dogs that hunt the village children at night, and a sinister doctor (Jan Hieronimko) who dismisses the sounds Allen has heard. Happening upon the local chateau, he peers through the window and discovers that the old man is the local baron moments before the older man is shot in the back by shadows unseen. In alerting the old caretaker (Vidocq's Albert Bras) to his master's death, Allen gains entry into the house where he learns from the man's youngest daughter Gisèle (Rena Mandel) that her older sister Léone (Diary fo a Lost Girl's Sybille Schmitz) is an invalid, being slowly drained of her life energy by a mysterious illness. Allen discovers a book on vampires, after which the groom sent to fetch the police is returned to the castle dead by his own horse cart and then Allen and the old housekeeper (N. Babanini) narrowly rescue somnambulistic Léone from an attack by the old crone who he now believes is a vampire. Léone is far from safe, however, and it is not until Allen is near comatose from donating blood for a transfusion that he suspects that the doctor is in league with the vampire.

Credited as an adaptation of Irish author J. Sheridan Le Fanu's story collection "In a Glass Darkly" but only taking elements from such stories as "Carmilla" – subsequently by Roger Vadim for the sublime film Blood and Roses, by Camillo Mastrocinque as Terror in the Crypt, as a lost episode of the British series Mystery and Imagination, by Hammer as The Vampire Lovers, the "pointedly" feminist The Blood-Spattered Bride, the Civil War American south-set Nightmare Classics TV adaptation, and more recently the lesser-seen Styria and The Unwanted, and the stodgy British adaptation Carmilla – and "The Room in the Dragon Volant" (so far only adapted for the British series Mystery and Imagination and the undeservedly-obscure The Sleep of Death), Vampyr was reportedly intended as a commercial project by director Carl Theodor Dreyer but it certainly disappointed audiences of the time who had had their appetites for horror whetted by Universal's back-to-back releases of Dracula and Frankenstein. With its focus on faces in various states of distress – in contrast to the blank visage of outsider Allen – and its proliferation of skeletal imagery, the film feels more like a spiritual rumination on dying and the afterlife loosely couched in the trappings of the Gothic genre: lonely villages, haunted chateaux, threatened young women, sinister doctors, and witchlike crones (more spectral than vampiric). The story is fairly simple but the deliberately diffused photography, wandering camerawork, and irrationalities observed by the conscious protagonist contribute to the commonly remarked upon "dreamlike" atmosphere in which the film's actual dream sequence – in which transfusion-weakened Allen finds himself immured in a coffin looking up through the glass window at the vampire and doctor burying him and the passing sky and tops of trees as he is carried to his grave – seems as if it could indeed be happening as part of the sinister goings-on. The cast of mostly non-actors are deployed rather than captured by Dreyer, and it is not the performances that drive the narrative but individual punctuating images of encroaching death – illustrated by the often-printed shot of the shadow of a scythe looming over the sleeping Giséle that appears nowhere in the film itself – that not only advance the story but cover up the seeming jumps in continuity. West's Allen is a rather passive observer who actually effects the story little, but there is indeed a sense that he can only be a dumb witness to the inexorable interventions of spiritual forces, positioning somewhere between those whose faith allows them to carry on as things happen to them and the villains of the story who are punished either by equally-supernatural forces or the faithful who can live with their actions (underlined by the thorough banality of most of the dialogue, the greater expository weight of a few intertitles, and the scoring of Wolfgang Zeller that gently underlines scenes rather than battering the mood into the ears of the audience). Although the film was a commercial failure and still stands out stylistically as an anomaly in the filmography of Dreyer, the influence of Vampyr on genre practitioners is not always obvious but is appreciated when it is acknowledged (see the extras).


With the useable materials apparently fully-documented and utilized for the 1998 restoration, the Danish Film Institute's 2020 2K restoration actually utilizes the same sources; however, rather than rescanning and digitally-cleaning the 1998 dupe negative, they have gone back and rescanned all of the original film sources for wider latitude in cleaning and grading the film. The results as beared out by Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.19:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray reveal that a significant amount of the lighter scratches that could not be erased before have been obliterated and the blacks are deeper without seemingly obliterating available detail, a defter touch made possible by newer technology. The upgrade is still minor but there is a greater sense of textural detail from the course paper that wraps the vampire book, the stucco walls and wood shavings of the warehouse, and even the skin of actors in close-ups that make them seem more "human."


As with Eureka's DVD edition, audio options include both restored and unrestored German mono tracks – albeit in uncompressed LPCM now – and while we have not done direct comparisons to the out of immediate reach Criterion Blu-ray, comparison to the Criterion DVD's Dolby Digital 1.0 track to to both LPCM tracks does suggest that a bit more umph in the lower notes of Zeller's score while the post-synched dialogue will always sound rather muffled, possibly as much due to the materials as Dreyer's feelings about the role of dialogue in the film. While Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray offered both the German intertitles and a version with recreated English intertitles, Eureka has taken after their DVD edition and only included the German intertitle version and optional English subtitle translation.


Ported over from the Criterion and Eureka DVDs is the audio commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns as well as the Eureka-exclusive audio commentary by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Rayns discusses Dreyer's commercial intentions, his litigation with the producers of The Passion of Joan of Arc (who would subsequently distribute Vampyr in France), how the film's distinctive look came about, the censor-mandated cuts, how Dreyer felt about UFA delaying the film's release by a year after the German release of the Universal horror pics. More interesting is the analytical part of the track in which he interprets the cutaways that do not correspond to Grey's point-of-view and the scenes that play outside of his presence as mental images of his repressed mind. Del Toro knew that his track would be supplementing Rayns' and while he speaks deprecatingly in his introduction about his contribution, the track is every bit as compelling as those portions of his own film commentaries where he focuses on the Gothic genre and religion. He discusses the clock motif, the elements of the décor and even overall compositions that are evocative of "memento mori" and "moving engravings", how the vampire corresponds to the folklore of the time as more of a ghostly wraith that can materialize corporeally, and that the film is less concerned with the survival of the body but the redemption of the soul – with the inexorable sense of forward momentum of the story reflecting Dreyer's Lutheran perspective – and that just as Grey's occult-interested mind makes him open to the dark influences that draw him into the story, the symbolic self-sacrifice of his dreamt death as Jesus-like. There is as much to unpack thematically in del Toro's musings here as there is in the extras that supplement his own films.

A suitable companion to the commentaries is the visual essay by scholar Casper Tybjerg (36:01) who notes that Dreyer's film was finishing production just as Universal's Dracula went into production but that vampires were en vogue at the time with the recent release of Nosferatu, "Dracula" on the stage in London in 1927 and Broadway in 1929, the stir caused in London by a murder in which the killer was supposedly motivated by the now lamentably-lost London After Midnight (Dreyer was in London that year to learn about sound technology and would meet Vampyr screenwriter Christen Jul there), as well as vampire-like Madeleine of Jean Epstein's The Fall of the House of Usher. He also notes that the film was the first on film to put the vampire in a then-contemporary setting – having been produced but not released before the Universal Dracula – and the various artistic influences including the works of Goya, Caspar David Friedrich, Antoine Wiertz, and specifically Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's landscapes and his "Death and the Woodcutter". In discussing the location shooting, he highlights the contributions of assistant director Eliane Tayar including among Dreyer's archives photographic studies by Tayar of several warehouses in search of one for the film and an anecdote about her response when an owner proposed renovating the property before she showed interest in it for its derelict condition. The documentary "Carl Th. Dreyer" (29:59) in Danish and French with optional English subtitles and burnt-in Danish subtitles) by Jörgen Roos documents Dreyer's visit to Paris for the premiere of the his final film Gertrud, meeting the likes of Henri Langlois, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and actress Anna Karina. Although it focuses largely on his final film, Dreyer does give a speech and briefly discuss his other films. Also ported from the Eureka DVD is "The Baron" (14:25), a documentary about Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg by Craig Keller in which we learn of his family fleeing Russia during the revolution, growing up and coming into his inheritance in Paris, networking among the rich and famous through soirees and his move to America where he toyed with being an actor in Hollywood – with a few MGM portraits on display – before moving to New York where he started at Condé Nast's "Town & Country" and made his way up to editor-in-chief before joining "Vogue" where he took on such apprentices as Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, and Calvin Klein.

On the Criterion and Eureka DVDs, the censored scenes from the French version were only available in the Tyberg piece; however, Eureka's Blu-ray includes them in context (3:50). Also new to the Blu-ray is "Kim Newman on Vampyr" (22:24) in which the writer/critic – who had recently waxed on Le Fanu and "Carmilla" on Scream Factory's Blu-ray of The Vampire Lovers – distinguishes Universal's Dracula as the inventor of the modern horror film and what came before it in the genre as art movies, literary adapation, old dark house thrillers, and ghost stories; and Dreyer's film in the context of what it does differently from the Universal film (likening the unwholesome nature of Léone's hungry stare at her sister to the lustier version of the sequence between bitten Mina and Jonathan in Universal's Spanish version of Dracula compared to the English version). Also new is "David Huckvale on Wolfgang Zeller" (36:39) in which the cultural historian covers in exacting detail Zeller's scoring choices and their use of the "Devil's triton" in a piece that is admirable in its scope but possibly of more interest to musicians than soundtrack fans. He also appears in "David Huckvale on Sheridan le Fanu" (11:38) discussing the Irish author and the "In a Glass Darkly" story collection, noting not only the parallels with "Carmilla" and "The Room in the Dragon Volant" but seeming references to other works in the collection including "Green Tea" and "The Familiar" (as well as suggesting that Gray himself is based on Dr. Martin Hesselius, the fictional occult detective among whose papers the stories in the collection allegedly derive).


The disc and keep case come in a limited edition hardbound slipcase of 3,000 copies with a 100-page book. In addition to production and cast credits, production stills, viewing notes, and Blu-ray credits, the booklet includes the original 1933 Danish film programme (translated by Trond S. Trondsen in 2008), "Film-Production Carl Dreyer" extracted from extracted from "My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Th. Dreyer" by Jean and Dale Drum (2000) which is quite a comprehensive account of the inspirations and making of the film which covers some of the same ground as other pieces on the film but has some of its own interesting anecdotes. Tom Milne's 1971 essay from "The Cinema of Carl Dreyer" discusses the film in the context of the period in between The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath but also notes the role of art director Hermann Warm who, as the designer of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, is surprisingly minimal and that no sets were actually built.

There is also an interview with Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg by Herman G. Weinberg and Gretchen Weinberg from 1964 in which he recalls meeting Dreyer through Jean Hugo and his wife Valentine Hugo – respectively, the art director and costume designer of The Passion of Joan of Arc – Dreyer's proposal to do the film in three languages, wanting to do more of a ghost story than "Dracula" or Nosferatu, the long shooting period, the locations, the "natural" special effects, and the sound design including animal sounds created at UFA by professional imitators. "Imagination and Colour" is a a transcript of a lecture given by Dreyer at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1955 in which he discusses the need to "use the camera to drive away the camera" and use for artistic interpretation rather than merely documenting reality, while "Some Notes on the Restoration" by Martin Koerber was written in 2000 but has since been updated. The earlier portion of the document covers the circumstances of production, the disparities between the reported lengths of the French and German versions and the actual materials, and notes that Zeller's manuscript of the score follows the editing fairly closely but it too is missing some pages covering scenes in which the most alterations had been made. The updated portion only covers the technical aspects of the Danish Film Institute's restoration, noting that 239,296 items and 616 scratches had to be repaired.


Although Vampyr was a commercial failure and still stands out stylistically as an anomaly in the filmography of Dreyer, its influence on genre practitioners is not always obvious but is appreciated when it is acknowledged.


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