Carl Theodor Dreyer’s macabre gothic romance from 1932 is now rereleased for its 90th anniversary. It’s an eerie, semi-silent classic which really does have the uncanny quality of a bad dream, in which event follows event with an unhurried somnambulist confidence. All early cinema, or maybe all cinema of any period, has that unspoken I-see-dead-people fascination: the spectacle of dead or forgotten actors revivified and brought back to undead life – and this is very appropriate for Vampyr.
It’s a film which took as its starting point the stories of Sheridan Le Fanu, so predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has a female vampire, and is thus very different from the male-centred satanic predator who was to become such a colossal horror-franchise player throughout the 20th century. This vampire, or vampyr, doesn’t yet have the elongated bicuspid-fangs, but the movie established some of the staples of vampire genre: the stake through the heart and the all-important dusty and mysterious central European tome, in German, which can reveal how to combat the vampires.
The deeply strange story is about a traveller called Allan Gray, played with saucer-eyed intensity by the French socialite Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who co-produced the movie with Dreyer and appeared under the stage name “Julian West”. He is a devotee of necromantic learning and a visionary who, on taking a room at an inn in a French village called Courtempierre, finds himself visited (perhaps in a dream or hallucination) by a troubled elderly man whose daughter is being attacked by a female vampire and the vampire’s henchman, the village doctor.
The young woman who has been bitten is called Léone, and now lies in a strange fever, having not yet entirely succumbed to the evil vampiric virus: she is played by Sybille Schmitz, whose own unhappy life and death inspired Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1982 film Veronika Voss. Dreyer’s closeups allow Léone’s disturbing face to fill the screen, gurning with an ambiguous ecstasy; it is like the clinical photograph of a psychiatric patient, or the subject of some Freudian case-history of hysteria as pure emotion, pure fear floods through her. And Gray witnesses phantoms: ethereal soldiers who are both remnants of the first world war and premonitions of the next.
Vampyr’s most creepily inspired scene is Gray’s out-of-body experience in which he sees himself as one of the undead, lying glassy-eyed in a coffin which is actually fitted with a little window allowing him to see out – a truly hair-raising idea – and we get the corpse’s point-of-view of what he can see as the coffin is being carried to its resting place. Vampyr asks: what is it like to be dead? And answers: indistinguishable from being alive. This film is a unique experience.