Vampyr (1932)

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer; Written by Christen Jul and Carl Theodor Dreyer

The older a film gets, the more difficult it becomes to suggest it to friends or whoever else will indulge your opinion. While classics of the past walked so modern masterpieces could run, historical significance often isn’t enough to wrest time from someone who feels disenchanted by the backwards lurch in technology. The 60s are grainy, 50s campy, 40s cynical, and everything before that is a bit “what the hell, the screen is square, but this isn’t Wes Anderson.” 

But in the case of Vampyr, it’s not difficult. Its pleasures don’t need to be put into context, they’re self-evident, and its thrills haven’t paled with time. Dreyer, somehow, is a filmmaker whose language wasn’t taken in by others and twisted over time, leaving the original recognizable, but somehow uncanny to a modern audience. It’s the genuine article, as immediate and vital as it was when it was first committed to film, its presence akin to that of someone who has just left the room. 

Vampyr tells the story of a young man, Allan Gray, a described “dreamer” who arrives at an inn for the night to rest on his search for the spiritual and otherworldly. A man with a foot here on earth and one in what’s beyond, he’s sometimes unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Dressed in a suit and tie, prim and clear-cut, he stands out against a backdrop of eccentric locals, who either say nothing, shuffle suspiciously, or utter eccentricities to him. Nearly five decades later, Dale Cooper will drive into the town of Twin Peaks to experience the same. Night has barely fallen, and odd things start to happen, with people falling ill and getting steadily worse as if something’s tapping their very life. Frightful and unnerving, the traveler nonetheless looks for the problems’ source.

What follows is an expressionist house of mirrors. It feels like a surreal fever dream, then an unnerving stage play that you’re held down and made to watch. However our hero may try, whatever monster he may destroy, he won’t ever really get at the evil heart of what’s happening here, and you’re not sure he really should try to. Some things might just best be left alone, and this sense of alienation Vampyr is so full off sees itself expressed in aforementioned Twin Peaks, but also in Carnival of Souls as well as Kubrick’s The Shining, right up to Trier’s Riget, where he assumed the throne as Denmark’s most artistically daring filmmaker. 

These references are not to contextualize, but to describe how evident these elements are in Vampyr, and how these latter works of art didn’t take them to the next step, but almost honed them into something more keen and keenly felt. They weaponized it, but here is the raw power. 

You can forget your notions of dusty, stilted filmmaking. Dreyer, here in his early 40s, is playful and dexterous like a man half his age, playing with shadows, time reversal, and perspective with a readiness and untroubled grace that makes a lot of modern filmmakers appear uninspired and completely idealess in how they handle that lens. 

The plot of Vampyr plot is a straightforward affair, and not the reason to watch it, as other films provide the twists and embellishments that take the genre further. It’s not a film justified by its resolution, but instead it exhilarates throughout, mystifies and entrances with a beckoning finger luring you into turning another corner into its maze. The story tells of beings who prey on other life forms to extend their life indefinitely. Vampyr is Dreyer’s unending claim on life. 

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