There are some films which you can watch and, without knowing anything of their history or context, recognise them as a landmark of cinema. Dreyer’s masterpiece, here given the DVD treatment it deserves, is one such film.

Profoundly unsettling, richly atmospheric, a milestone in the development of cinematic ‘grammar’ as well as an edge-of-the-seat horror movie to rival the best – the superlatives come thick and fast when trying to describe it, and it’s tempting to say nothing about it at all, so that the new viewer can experience its chillingly disconcerting narrative approach afresh. But that would put me out of a job, so here goes.

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Allan Gray (Julian West), a young student of the occult (who, the opening titles inform us, has been driven almost insane by his researches into vampirism and demonology) arrives at a small French town late one evening. The inn where he decides to spend the night is full of unlit passageways, sinister blind men, strange noises and paintings of Death personified.

Instead of hot-footing it to the nearest Travelodge, he beds down – and is visited by an old man (Maurice Schutz) who leaves a book "to be opened after my death" and informs him there is a soul nearby in mortal danger. Following him to a dilapidated chateau, Gray discovers the man is the local count and one of his two daughters (Sybille Schmitz) has been bitten by a vampire. Gray falls in love with her sister, Gisele (Rena Mandel) and tries to keep both girls safe as the vampire and its minions close in.

Such a summary doesn’t even begin to describe the nightmarish strangeness of this film. Rooms seem to shrink and expand before the audience’s eyes; characters appear and disappear without any explanation as to who (or what) they are; the editing and cinematography create constant shifts in perspective. In short, you’re as disoriented – and helpless – as Gray himself.

And the narrative is far removed from the classic action-packed battle pitting stalwart hero and wise old professor type against a virile, Byronic seducer. Gray bumbles through the film not really having a clue how to combat his elusive adversary; the old doctor (Jan Hieronimko) is the vampire’s chief henchman and the main onscreen villain. And the vampire’s incarnation – well, that really is best for you to find out yourself.

A lot of it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but how many nightmares do? That’s the best way to look at this film – critics have often speculated Gray may be imagining it all, and there’s a superb extended section where he falls asleep and his dream self, back projected to look like a ghost, walks into a room and sees a ‘third image’ of himself being buried alive by the bad guys.

Post-modern academics' heaven indeed, a film that subverts all the clichés of the horror genre just at the moment they were being born (the vampire’s only attack is glimpsed fleetingly, almost off-screen; the setting is modern day, not some unreal Gothic fairyland). But it’s genuinely scary too. There’s no gore or heavily telegraphed suspense, just a creeping dread borne of one of man’s oldest fears – the parasite in human form. And parents should note, despite this film's PG rating, it is likely to induce nightmares in adults, let alone the under 15s.

The film’s history is almost as surreal as anything that occurs on screen. Dreyer was a Danish ex-journalist born illegitimate and raised by strict Lutherans, who began film-making in the 20s and produced the silent masterpiece Joan Of Arc, in 1927. He’d intended Vampyr to be a silent too, a swift follow-up to his critical (though not box-office) success. But litigation and problems raising finance delayed the start of production. Eventually he enlisted the help of Nicolas de Gunzburg, a Russian émigré nobleman working as a fashion journalist in Paris. He agreed to finance it on condition that he took the starring role. He is Julian West, the ‘stage name’ he took for his first and only acting appearance.

So a Danish Lutheran director and a leading man/producer whose father was a Russian Jew and whose mother was half-Polish/half-Brazilian set to adapting a book of short stories In A Glass Darkly by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, a 19th century Irish writer from a French Huguenot background – is it any wonder the resulting film is one of a kind?

The main elements of Sheridan’s tales they drew on were the female vampire motif of “Camille” (later done with much less subtlety by Hammer as The Vampire Lovers) and the premature burial nightmare from The Room In the Dragon Volant. They provide some of the film’s most enduring images, but others, such as the scythe-bearing farmer tolling the bell for a ferry and a climactic death scene of suffocation in a huge flour mill (paid homage to by Sergio Leone in Once Upon A Time In America) are the products of Dreyer’s genius.

The film took so much out of him that he voluntarily committed himself to a mental hospital soon after. The censors demanded cuts and the public’s reaction ranged from bemusement to outright hostility - its opening night in Vienna ended with police baton charging an audience so appalled and outraged that they had begun to destroy the cinema.

Dreyer’s career lasted until shortly before his death in 1966, but he made few films. His working methods were rigorous and he frequently cast non-professionals (Hieronimko was a poet and academic spotted on the Metro one night by Dreyer’s casting director; Vampyr is also his only film appearance).

But his legacy is at least two masterpieces and a poetic, dreamlike style that has proved hugely influential. To watch Vampyr is to be transported back to a time when cinema was the youngest and potentially most revolutionary art form in human history, when a film could be single-handedly financed from someone outside the industry and its premiere could literally cause a riot. It’s a rich, strange wonder to be viewed again and again. But perhaps not alone on a dark and stormy night.

Reviewed on: 02 Sep 2008
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A young occultist stumbles upon a French village shrouded in fog and haunted by a vampire.
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Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Writer: Christen Jul, based on the novel by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Starring: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko

Year: 1932

Runtime: 72 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: France, Germany

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