Vampyr (1932) – Carl Theodor Dryer (Mardaweh Tompo)

Synopsis: Allan Gray arrives at an inn to sleep only to be aroused by mysterious happenings at the inn that leads him to an eventful stay.

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Carl Theodor Dryer was a master of elevating every element in film to its most transcendent level by stripping away the theatrical or ornamental that dominated popular cinema at that time period (and to a certain extent in ways today) and to level the film to its most unpretentious barest level of humanness. I don’t even have the words to describe it. Dryer had the unique ability as both a writer and director to fuse the particulars of cinema into a tapestry that swept the viewer away on a journey to levels within themselves they didn’t know existed. This guy is currently my favorite director and he also had a rare ability to take a great actor and make them formidable (Falconetti in Passion of Jean de Arc) and a not so great actor here Julian West (real name Nicolas de Gunzberg) and make them appear effortless. You can’t name an auteur who hasn’t been inspired by him currently. Dryer, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir are amongst many other notable auteurs and actors/actresses of that time period who gave voice to the mind, body, and spirit of the human will. Now to the review!

Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzberg) is a student of the occult who wanders one night into an old inn. He is welcomed for the night and offered a room to sleep. He is awakened by an old man in his room who gives him a warning to protect his daughters. The man later writes a note to him that states “To be opened upon my death”. The man leaves. Allan is frightened. He immediately picks up the letter and walks outside and sees shadows of what looks like soldiers dancing and pointing him in a certain direction to a castle. He follows and encounters an old wizened doctor inside the castle. Allan has also been hearing strange noises at this time of children playing. He asks the Doctor if there are any children but the Doctor (Jan Hieronimko) denies it and rushes him away from the castle.

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The next day, Allan spots the old man who gave him the warning/letter in a window but he is suddenly shot. Allan rushes to his aid and is let into the Man’s house by the servants. Unfortunately, for the old man it is too late and he dies as they cannot find the doctor in time to save his life. Allan stays the night and is introduced to the old man’s daughters Gisele (Rena Mandel) and Leone (Sybille Schmitz). Gisele is deep in mourning as she learns of her father’s passing and deals with her older sister falling ill under mysterious circumstances. Leone starts to hear a calling and leaves her bedside unbeknownst to Gray and Gisele. Allan and Gisele spot Leone outside after seeing her collapse. They notice fresh bite marks on her neck and immediately carry her inside.

While waiting to hear back about Leone’s condition, Gray remembers the package the old man gave him upon his death. It is a book about Vampyr’s. Gray reads the book and begins to connect the dots about what is happening in the household. Gray finishes the book and finds the Doctor he met in the castle attending to Leone. The doctor performs a blood transfusion on Gray after it is found that that is the only way to save Leone’s life. Disoriented after the transfusion, Gray lies down on a couch and has fitful sleep. He wakes up and rushes back into Leone’s room and find the Doctor with a poison vial in his hand. The doctor drops it and runs out of the manor. Gray then notices that Gisele is gone. Gray leaves the follows the Doctor out of the manor but loses sight of him. Extremely exhausted, he falls asleep on a bench and he has visions of the Doctor with the Vampyr.

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In this vision, Gray finds himself being buried alive and Gisele tied up. After awaking from the dream, Allan knows exactly where Gisele is and rescues her while the Doctor is away. An old servant, finds Gray’s book and learns how to defeat the Vampyr by hammering an iron bar in their heart. The servant meets Gray and they both conspire to defeat the Vampyr by going to Marguerite Chopin’s grave at night. They open up the grave and place the stake in the old woman and find her body turning into a skeleton.  The Doctor locks himself into a flour mill after the Vampyr’s death but the servant finds him and turns it on suffocating the Doctor. Leone is healed and Gray and Gisele cross a river into  brightness.

I love this movie more than Nosferatu because of the depth to it. It’s not as dated to me and it is really priceless. I love the subtlety in the scenes with the doctor recoiling at the nurses cross and praying. Or my favorite wheel scene in the mill that reminded me of a Picasso painting which was very clever. I love the internal conflict that is shown in Leone as she fights for her soul. This is classic Dreyer in highlighting spiritual warfare between needs and desire.

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My favorite thing in this film is the usage of shadows and special effects. The vision scene was awesome as he Gray went through walls to find himself. The earlier scene was amazing with the shadow of the soldier. It’s just clever cinema. Utilizing the limits of technology of the time and thinking outside the box.

Films like Vampyr and Orpheus that utilize provocative special effects to further engage the viewer in the story have always been intriguing to me.

This film isn’t as heavy as later Dreyer works but it is the perfect horror film and my favorite.

Mardaweh Tompo

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Russel DDK says:

    Your review has certainly piqued my interest in this film. Good review. Will give it a try sometime this weekend.

  2. beetleypete says:

    Good appreciation of an often overlooked film Mardeweh. As you rightly say, in the context of its time, the effects are really fascinating.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  3. Thanks Russell. I agree with you Pete this film is so deep and truly scary it’s unfortunate that many laud Nosferatu as the seminal horror film and don’t shine light on Vampyr.

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