Vampire films have always been one of the most popular subgenres of horror, but amongst Nosferatu and The Lost Boys and Dracula, there’s another film that seems to get lost but is no less deserving of attention. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 masterpiece Vampyr is a bad trip through the worlds of the living and the dead, and whilst for a while its reputation was not great, it has been recognised more and more as a true classic of cinema. And now, for its 90th anniversary, it’s being released in cinemas along with a brand-new Eureka Entertainment Blu-ray.
Vampyr is a heady journey of a film that is much more concerned with imagery and meaning than it is with plot. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have one – indeed its plot is fairly simplistic – but Dreyer was clearly more interested in playing with form and function, and it’s that which makes Vampyr so unique, with several of its images becoming iconic shots of horror as well as cinema in general. People also talk about Vampyr as a silent film, but it isn’t. While it doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and is certainly told visually, it has a very definite sound design and score that adds to its hypnotic quality.
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Vampyr sees a wandering man, as we are told in the opening roll-up, visit the French village of Courtempierre. The man, Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg, credited as Julian West) is both intrigued and horrified when he is left a package by a strange man before witnessing a group of shadows dancing in a castle, suggesting evil goings-on which is amplified when he sees the man who visited him murdered. The package turns out to be a book on vampires, and as Gray begins to read it, the man’s sick daughter begins to exhibit strange and lustful tendencies.
Vampyr is a fascinating film, with Dreyer conjuring a wonderfully hallucinatory feel so that you’re unsure exactly what is and isn’t taking place in reality. Taking the vampire legend, he uses that to explore what it means to be alive and dead, and this is especially potent in a sequence where Gray has an out of body experience and sees his own body in a coffin. It’s a quite terrifying moment and wonderfully created with flawless effects that effortlessly convey the idea of him being trapped in the netherworld.
In fact, it’s incredible just how scary Dreyer’s film is. Gray walks through the film wide-eyed and terrified and we’re with him, for example when he sees the sick daughter Léone and her transformation into a lustful creature which is done through acting alone, as well as his journey through life and death where he sees who is behind the evil in the village, which includes the supremely creepy town doctor. Luckily, he gets a suitably gruesome comeuppance, which was originally censored.
This new edition of Vampyr comes from a fresh 2K restoration of the film by the Danish Film Institute, and it looks stunning. Some of the scenes are softer than others, and I don’t know know what the condition of the sources they used was, but the stark look of the film has been preserved beautifully, perfectly capturing the hallucinatory look. Wolfgang Zeller’s moody and atmospheric score still sounds as creepy as ever and deserves a lot of credit for helping draw you quickly into this eerie world.
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Vampyr is being released into cinemas as well as being made available on a brand-new Blu-ray, with the latter full of wonderful supplemental features that help explore the world of the film. One of the chief draws is an audio commentary by director Guillermo del Toro where he takes you through his love of the film, and it’s a fascinating and entertaining track. There’s also another commentary track by critic Tony Rayns, interviews with author David Huckvale on the score and the work of writer Sheridan le Fanu, whose writing the film is loosely adapted from, a new interview with critic Kim Newman who talks about the film in the wider context of the vampire subgenre, a documentary about Dreyer, deleted scenes, visual essays and more.
Vampyr is a masterpiece of horror. It’s a dream and a nightmare and still impresses to this day, and this new restoration is beautiful, with an exhaustive Blu-ray full of fascinating special features. Any serious film fan needs to own this.
Vampyr is out in cinemas on 20th May and on Blu-ray on 30th May from Eureka Entertainment.