Sunday, April 20, 2008
Film #40: Vampyr
Carl Th. Dreyer’s hallucinatory 1932 Danish masterpiece Vampyr has a unique creepiness all its own. It’s easy to see where some present-day filmmakers (chief among them David Lynch) got some of their ideas once you experience this moody trek through Cortenpierre, where vampire hunter David Grey (Baron Nicholas De Gunzberg, acting under the alias Julien West) has stumbled upon an atmosphere fraught with supernatural dealings. Shadows defy their owners and do as they please; two sisters seem to be decaying into members of the undead; and, in the most famous sequence, David wanders into a room where he sees himself laid out in a flower-bedecked coffin, eyes dreadfully open but nonetheless ready for burial.
Many of Dreyer's previous films--like the incomparable Passion of Joan D'Arc--and later works like Gertrud and Ordet--fell on the more spiritually nurturing side of the fence. But I suppose if you're going to be a filmmaker who admits the chilly existence of God, then you must also be one to recognize the burning face of evil as well. Vampyr does this better than almost any movie I can think of. It's masterfully photographed by Rudolph Mate, later the cinematographer of Hollywood classics like The Lady from Shanghai, Gilda, and Dodsworth. Mate gives the film an otherworldly glow that is difficult to shake come bedtime. Despite its being Dreyer's first sound work, Vampyr is a prime example of a movie that uses silence and darkness--two of a horror movie maker’s best tools--to ultimate, spine-tingling effect.