John Ary here with another installment of Ain’t It Scary Reviews. Today, an outsider must help a small community battle the dark forces of Satan.
Danish director Carl Dreyer received a great deal of praise for his 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Many regard it as a landmark in filmmaking. Audiences literally booed his next film, 1932’s Vampyr. This financial flop lead to the director’s nervous breakdown. Although Dreyer considered his film a disaster at the time, Vampyr’s reputation would rebound over the years. Now when many critics talk about horror films of the 20’s and 30’s, they group it in with classics like Nosferatu and Dracula. While the narratives of those films are much stronger, Vampyr feels more experimental and rougher around the edges. It also features some surreal imagery that makes it a must see for fans of early horror cinema.
A guy named Allan Gray stops for the evening at the local inn while traveling through a small community. In the middle of the night an old man awakens him. He leaves Allan with a small parcel with these instructions written on it, “To be opened upon my death”. The next day Gray explores the area and stumbles upon a series of shadows that have no bodies attached to them. They lead him to a large estate where he sees the old man shot to death. When Gray opens the mysterious package, he finds a manual about vampires. Our hero must discover the local source of the vampire attacks plaguing this community, before the village succombs to the devil’s villainous plans.
What interests me about these classic horror films is the groundwork hasn’t been completely established yet for monsters like vampires and werewolves. In this story, the old man’s manual lays out the vampire rules. Here, vamps don’t exactly suck blood with fangs, but they will infect you with scratches and bites. They control the shadows of the sinful dead who weren’t good enough to get into heaven. Also, vampires work as an agent of the devil. The ultimate goal is not to turn people into blood suckers, but to make their lives so miserable that they kill themselves, a sin which would exclude them from getting into heaven. The most important rule: there is a single head vampire somewhere in the cemetery that only comes out at night. The only way to stop it involves putting a stake through its heart, connecting it with the earth. Once this occurs, everyone returns to normal.
This film didn’t have the backing of a major studio like 1931’s Dracula. Instead the star of the movie Nicolas de Gunzburg, an aristocrat who would later go on to be a major force in the world of fashion, financed it. Because of the film’s independent nature, it doesn’t feel very polished. All of the audio is overdubbed rather than captured during filming, most of the cast have never acted before and there aren’t any sets as everything is shot on location.
What the movie does have is a surreal style. Expect to see dream sequences with the main character having a ghost-like experience, skeletons come alive, shadows move independently of their bodies, and creepy point of view shots from a corpse in a casket. These elements come together to set an eerie macabre mood for the piece. The tone stays constant rarely ever letting up.
While it may move a little slow and the narrative can become confusing at times, Vampyr will surprise you with its periodic flashes of visual brilliance. Although it may not be as accomplished by its more famous horror contemporaries, it certainly deserves to be mentioned somewhere in the conversation.
Vampyr is streaming on Hulu. It’s also available on a Criterion DVD here.
Check back in tomorrow for another Ain’t It Scary Review as three miniature psychopaths celebrate their birthdays with a killing spree.
Here’s a look back at the Ain’t It Scary Review installments that you might have missed:
The Ground Rules to the Project
#1 Son of Frankenstein
#2 Scream, Blacula, Scream!
#3 Black Sabbath
#5 Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
#6 Invisible Invaders
#7 The Mummy’s Curse
#8 Lord of Illusions
#9 Night of the Demons
#10 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
#11 The House of the Devil
#12 Dr. Phibes Rises Again!
#14 The Catman of Paris
#17 Werewolf of London
#18 Tales from the Hood
#19 The Keep
#20 The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog
#22 Night of the Living Dead
#23 Pit and the Pendulum
#24 Tucker and Dale vs Evil
#25 The Stuff
#26 Creature from the Black Lagoon
#27 Planet of the Vampires
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