The first thing that came to my mind after watching this hypnotic and unsettling film is the Franklin D. Roosevelt quote, “The only thing to fear is…fear itself”. Here’s a horror film that may be considered tame by today’s standards. Many youngsters today have grown so accustomed to the blood-soaked, jump scare-laden or torture porn horror films of today that they might overlook some of the finer and subtle aspects of films like Vampyr that make them stand out among the other films in the genre. The film is Dreyer’s first sound film but there is very little dialogue.
Based on elements from Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly, The story concerns a young man named Allan Grey (played by Julian West, who is also the producer), a student of the Occult travelling through France. His journey takes him to a village called Courtempierre where he books a room at an inn. There he is visited by a strange old man who entrusts him with a package and requests him not to open it until after his death. When Allan begins to witness a series of spooky occurrences, he is anxious to find out their meaning. His investigation leads him to a mysterious castle nearby, which he learns is inhabited by this old man and his two daughters, Leone and Gisele. Allan learns that Leone has fallen ill.
When the old man is found murdered under mysterious circumstances, Allan is compelled to open the package. Later, Gisele brings his attention to a sight of her sister wandering outside.They follow her trail and soon finds her unconscious, with bite marks on her neck. Allan surmises that these events may have something to do with what he has just discovered inside the package: a book on vampires. The film is the cinematic equivalent of an eerie nightmare or hallucination, if you will. The abstract and haunting imagery attempts to dig into your subconscious and bring out some of your worst fears.
Dreyer employs fluid camera movements and long takes and comes up with several innovative techniques here that was considered revolutionary during its time. There are a several memorable sequences that stay with you long after the film is over. My favorite is the one where the protagonist’s physical and spiritual selves become separated from each other and the spiritual self is followed until it ends up inside a coffin. We are then shown the POV of Allan from inside the coffin as it is being taken to the burial ground. Quite a disturbing scene, I must say.