Vampyr is one of those movies that feels like the seed for everything that came after it. Not only is this the earliest vampire movie I’ve seen (Nosferatu I’m coming for you) it’s also my first Carl Dreyer movie (applause).
As far as 30s horror goes, it’s not hard to see why Vampyr is held in such high regard. It’s a stunning piece of genre art. Dreyer knew how to concoct a chilling frame and his use of optical effects, light and shadow as well as a pioneering use of sound is brazen and nightmarish. All the iconography we’ve come to associate with the genre is present and accounted for; the walking dead, wooden stakes, foggy graveyards, which all make it feel especially modern and influential. There’s something about the atmosphere here, so thick, hazy and mythical that it practically soaks into your bones like drizzle on Halloween night. I loved just taking in the individual images as well as the ever-present darkness haunting their edges. After recently seeing The Witch, it’s painstakingly clear how far Dreyer’s influence still reaches to this day.
After reading about Dreyer’s countless technical innovations the film feels even more monumental. I also love how it’s a lean, mean 76 minutes. This is basically the 30s equivalent of a 70s John Carpenter movie; a stripped back genre exercise so minimal and specific that every shot is an essential piece of the whole. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying to reinvent cinema or define a genre, though somehow that’s exactly what Dreyer ended up doing in a way.
Don’t let the four star rating throw you off too much, it’s only because the film feels so familiar now that some of the narrative surprises have been blunted. I also get the feeling that this isn’t a definitive showcase for Dreyer’s talents at full-speed. It doesn’t feel like a major work for the filmmaker, but rather a technical exercise he knocked out of the park. Vampyr is quite wonderful and even watched on-mute or used for background projection at a Halloween party it would still be wholly effective. A truly historic horror movie made by a true artist. What Dreyer should I watch next?