“Vampyr” – A.J. Hakari

Let me tell you a story, kids. Once upon a time, vampires used to be scary. They didn’t sparkle in the sun, they weren’t romantic, and they didn’t look like they were engaged in 24-hour pout-a-thons. It used to be that these creatures of the night sought your immortal soul more so than a date to the prom, a notion conveniently glossed over by a certain pop culture juggernaut. Call me crazy, but it’s more interesting to see vampires at their most primal, their mystique all the more alluring when you have no clue what they’ll do next. 1932’s Vampyr understands this and, with such knowledge in hand, invites its audience to tour one of the most dark, foreboding, and visually inventive realms of horror they’re likely to witness.

Vampyr is, by its own admission, the strange tale of Allan Grey (Julian West), a student of all things supernatural. Obsessed with the weird and the fantastic, a taste of the beyond is just what young Allan gets when he stumbles upon the village of Courtempierre. This is a bizarre place indeed, one in which reflections are sentient, shadows have lives of their own, and gravediggers pay no heed to the laws of time or physics. But in the midst of all this phenomena, a mystery commences that Allan swiftly becomes wrapped up in. He arrives at a secluded manor just as the man of the house is murdered, clearing the way for a sinister force to prey upon one of his daughters (Sybille Schmitz). It takes little time for Allan to deduce that the work of a vampire is at play, sending him on a search for the fiend before the girl joins the ranks of the damned.

Vampyr proudly presents the monster at its most pure. When the film was released, Bela Lugosi was just beginning to make his rounds as Dracula; audiences really had only legend to base their vision of the vampire off of, a situation Universal Studios quickly had its way with. It’s this world of myth and superstition that director Carl Theodor Dreyer explored with Vampyr, making it closer in tone to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu than Lugosi’s outings. But even then, Nosferatu is only similar in look and feel; as opposed to Max Schreck’s grotesque Count Orlok, there’s not a fang or claw in sight where Vampyr is concerned. Dreyer shrouds his film in mystery and is all the better for it, creating a work not out of cliche but of an abiding interest in what the unknown has to offer. Focus is more on atmosphere than theatrics, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the picture’s overall craftsmanship.

Even those who regard classics the same way Dracula would the sun can’t deny that Vampyr is ahead of its time. Dreyer incorporates a number of techniques that effectively establish the film’s setting as one in which anything goes. Clever editing and camera trickery enable the impossible to spring to life, allowing the audience to experience the unease the characters feel in a way nothing short of revolutionary. Everything you see in Vampyr is done for the benefit of mood, leaving viewers to ponder not only what will happen next but how Dreyer and crew will pull it off. But if there’s anything about the film that may disappoint potential viewers, it’s that it does depend so heavily upon ambience. Those in search of a complex narrative will leave Vampyr significantly underwhelmed. It’s actually a pretty simple “good vs. evil” fable, though nonetheless effective due to the symbolism used to convey its themes. There’s nothing spectacular about the casting either, but the actors carry out their duties as well as can be expected (though Jan Hieronimko certainly makes an impression as the shifty village doctor).

After guzzling down boilerplate bloodsuckers decade after decade, consider Vampyr to be a refreshing sip of water to cleanse your palate. With the vampire so ingrained in modern pop culture, it’s about time movie buffs got a reason to fear the dark again. Twi-hards need not apply when it comes to Vampyr, a film more freaky and unsettling than a thousand Edward Cullens put together.

Rating: ★★★½

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Read Chris Luedtke’s Vampyr review here.

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