There is perhaps no word in horror criticism as overused as nightmarish, which tends to be a lazy way of saying either, “Something weird is shown happening,” or the narrative cause and effect is slightly more opaque than “Der’s a bomb ind da builting! GED OUD!”
Films that actually that attempt to capture the lurching, yet lucid dislocative feel of a nightmare are rare, the ones that actually achieve this tone are rarer still and of these arguably none have captured the feel of being trapped in the dark corners of ones own mind than The Vampyr.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates this better than what a particularly tough film it is to get a grasp on. I always remember it as a silent film, which it is of course not (the film has both a score and limited dialogue). It’s a film that I’ve seen discussed as one of the last works of European expressionism, but that’s not really correct either, aside from a few gothic flourishes The Vampyr is a film that very much takes place in the real world. Indeed this is the very thing that gives its most intense imagery such extraordinary power. It is much more closely linked to surrealism than expressionism, as what it portrays is a very ordinary world invaded by the uncanny, as opposed to a world seen through the twisted perspective of the uncanny. But even this description falls short in describing the austere feel of the film. The Vampyr, like all of Dreyer’s films is simply unquantifiable. And trying to describe what school it belongs to or the curious effect that watching it has, is in a lot of ways just as fruitful as- well trying to explain to a disinterested friend about the really weird dream you had last night.
As is describing the plot. And once again we have the odd shifting perspectives around the film. I’ve heard the film’s story described in fairly straight forward terms, and can’t help but wonder if I am alone in finding the movie truly and deeply weird on a narrative level. The Vampyr follows a young man, who comes to an ominous European village and eventually makes his way to first a haunted castle, and then a country manor, where the daughter of the homeowner is under the attack of a Vampire(yr). This might sound fairly straight forward, but that doesn’t convey the oddness of how everything fits together. The Vampyr is a film where cause and effect have a distant chilly relationship, and are not necessarily on speaking terms with one another. Things just sort of happen in Dreyer’s film, with the protagonist buffeted along to observe scene after scene that just don’t really fit together. There is no Lynch like tipping of the hand, every scene is played more or less on the level. It’s just that they seem to follow their own inscrutable tidal pull rather than traditional story structure.
When for example the protagonist is first warned of the threat, it is by an old man who breaks into his inn room, stares at him for awhile says “She Must Not Die.” Gives no further explination, leaves a brown paper wrapped package upon which he casually inscribes “To be opened in the event of my death.” And then leaves. If the main character finds this at all odd he keeps it to himself.
And this is an expository scene.
This leads to one of the two most famous scenes in the film where he wanders to an abandon castle (once again note that this is pretty much a matter of impulse rather than logical narrative progression) and finds it filled with dancing shadows that have become untethered from their owners. The sequence would almost be whimsical (a word you won’t hear much in Dreyer) if it weren’t so unsettling, and of course no explination is offered.
The rest of the vampire does offer some of the traditional features of the vampire tale. The helpless victim preyed upon (in daylight, in the middle of the road and with the vampire itself portrayed as a wizened old woman, her face deformed by age [something of a motif in the film]. All signs of Dreyer once again bucking traditional imagery), the disinterment and staking of the creature, the tracking and killing of its familiar (the village doctor who looks for all the world like the secret love child of Mark Twain and Nietzsche). Yet it all feels, well not perfunctory but distant. One of the oddest features of the film is that the hero never seems to be in any danger from the vampire. Even the film’s most famous sequence in which he “dies” and then witnesses his own burial from the inside of a coffin with a glass window, is ultimately revealed to be a dream, or at most a vision sent to him as a kind of passive aggressive revenge.
To say that Dreyer was uninterested in the vampire would be unfair, both to Dreyer and to the vampire. But it would be fair to say that perhaps he saw them more as a symptom than an end to themselves. They are only one aspect of the uncanny, which The Vampyr arguably portrays better than any other film. After all, no director was better than Dreyer at portraying people struggling for contact with the divine and here he has its dark opposite, equally inexplicable and unknowable. It’s a force that twists the world of shape and warps the story. Powerful enough that it literally rents shadows from the bodies that cast them. Perhaps that’s what makes The Vampyr such a hard film to get a hold of and describe, it’s like watching a film with a gravity well embedded in its center.