Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Vampyr (1932)

Watching a silent film can be a completely alienating experience. The vast majority of films from the silent era come from an entirely different sensibility and they can be extremely difficult to enjoy. While Vampyr is not, actually, a silent film, it's firmly rooted in the ascetic of that era and it is best viewed with this in mind. By the standards of that era, Vampyr is a chilling piece of horror. There are some moments that stand out, even today, but, overall, it just feels dated.

Vampyr, directed by the highly renowned Carl Dreyer, is the story of Allan Grey. Mr. Grey is fascinated with the occult and, on a trip to the countryside, finds himself neck deep in the machinations of a vampire. His struggles to save himself and a girl, who he promised to help, take him through a series of unsettling events that put his very life in jeopardy. Dreyer, as he usually did, used a cast full regular people instead of trained actors for most of the roles. It also marks the first time that Dreyer used sound in any of his films. This combination of things leads to a production that feels more amateur than masterful.

Anyone who has seen more than one Dreyer film knows that he can work magic with a cast of nobodies. He has elicited unbelievable performances out of these regular people on more than one occasion, but it just doesn't pan out that way in Vampyr. The main culprit here is our leading man, Julian West. His unchanging expression of confusion is a perfect metaphor for a first viewing of the film. Vampyr is a convoluted mess from start to finish. Overly complex and plodding, the movie ambles through it's run-time like one of the lost souls in the story. You'll find your face looking a lot like West's before it's over; confused and slightly bored. This, coupled with the rudimentary, and mostly unnecessary, use of sound and dialog, give them film a feel of being incomplete. It's not all doom and gloom for the, so-called, horror classic though.

Vampyr succeeds on the very important visual level like few films of the era do. There are quite a few chilling moments that stand out even after 75 years. The buried alive sequence, in particular, is really an impressive piece of film making and I was exceptionally fond of the shadow special effects. The sort of subtlety that Vampyr demonstrates is a aspect of the horror genre that has been, unfortunately, lost under buckets of blood and violence in modern horror films. The atmosphere, created by the camera filters and special effects, is truly ghastly and something that is easy for anyone to appreciate. If anything proves that Dreyer is worthy of the acclaim lumped on him and his directorial efforts, then his masterful crafting of atmosphere in Vampyr, despite his failures with the cast, does the trick.

Vampyr is effective enough just in the visual sense to be worth a viewing. The acting and pacing of nearly every film from this era feels completely dated, so it's hard to really approach the movie from a modern sensibility anyway. Carl Dreyer is a master director, but Vampyr is far from his crowing achievement. It's a hallmark horror film, chilling, atmospheric and worthy of some of the praise it receives, but, overall, it doesn't really amount to anything special.


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