An early sound film shot with a distinctive and evocative silent film aesthetic, Vampyr is a horror movie as tone poem. Dialogue is sparse and large blocks of text (either intertitles or pages from a book of vampire lore) provide the exposition. It’s an eerily abstract film of vague motivations and ethereal imagery (exaggerated by the worn state of the source prints) from the opening scenes.
Our hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), is a vaguely interested in the supernatural, according the titles, but he walks into this cursed village like a dazed innocent whose walking tour (or perhaps butterfly hunt? he’s hoisting a large net over his shoulder) of the familiar countryside takes him into unfamiliar terrain, a cursed village that is, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the world. A villager with a scythe rings a bell on a misty lake as he arrives, already conjuring a feeling of death and portents of supernatural things to come.
Gray discovers shadows without bodies and a tormented young woman with vague wounds treated by an unnerving doctor who only visits at night, and embarks on a spirit journey to watch his own funeral (from both within and without his casket simultaneously). Julian West (the pseudonym of Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, who also financed the film) is a blank, inexpressive actor, more convincing as a creepy corpse than a living hero, but his languid expression makes his passive protagonist just another part of the dreamy world.
A definitive version of Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr is a holy grail of cinema. Dreyer prepared separate German, French and English versions of the film, and even though he shot them without sound and post-synched all the dialogue, he had his cast perform their dialogue in all three languages for greater verisimilitude in the dubbing. The negative (and variant takes of dialogue scenes) and original soundtrack recordings are long lost and the surviving prints are slightly different from one another (not just because of language differences, but censorship, damage, and even Dreyer’s own recutting after the disastrous premiere) and incomplete, not to mention well worn and scratched and faded.
Criterion’s new edition, mastered from a restoration by Martin Koerber, is the closest we have to definitive. It’s in German (almost nothing exists of the original English version) and, though the image is soft and worn because of the state of existing prints, it looks better than I’ve ever seen it. It sounds better too. The digital cleaning of the soundtrack removes so much of the hiss that I remember from 16mm prints and old video copies. It also makes the sound effects and dialogue crisper (which has the unintended effect of drawing more attention to the fact that it was post-synched).