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The Criterion Collection presents
Vampyr (1932)

"Why does the doctor always come at night?"
- Giséle (Rena Mandel)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: August 21, 2008

Stars: Julian West, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko
Other Stars: Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Henriette Gerard, Albert Brax, N. Babanini, Jane Mora
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (vampirism)
Run Time: 01h:13m:36s
Release Date: July 22, 2008
UPC: 715515030427
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+A-C- A-

DVD Review

Vampyr is another in a series of great films that was very nearly lost altogether. Filmed simultaneously in English, French and German versions by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the English version is virtually all lost, while several prints of the French and German versions exist in somewhat fragmentary form. This disc presents the 1998 reconstruction by Martin Koerber of the German-language version, which marks a huge upgrade over the prior DVD version, which suffered from massive black blocks for subtitles.

Allan Gray ("Julian West," a pseudonym for the minor aristocrat who financed the picture) is an enthusiast for the occult who finds himself drawn to the village of Courtempierre. There he experiences a series of bizarre sights and events, culminating in a nocturnal visit from a strange man who leaves a package to be opened after his death. Following disembodied shadows, Gray makes his way to the chateau, where he sees the man from the night before, the lord of the chateau (Maurice Schutz) murdered by one of the shadows. Gray learns that the deceased left two daughters, Léone (Sybille Schmitz) and Giséle (Rena Mandel), but that Léone suffers from a mysterious malady. Reading from the book contained in the package, Gray learns of the nature of the vampiric threat facing the family, and withn the help of the family's old servant (Albert Bras), sets out to stop the scourge of the vampire.

While the story is fairly simple, Dreyer uses cinematic technique to film one of the most artistic horror films to grace celluloid, arguably equalled only by Kubrick's The Shining. The camera is almost always used in a disconcerting way, with persons entering frame in unexpected ways and from often startling directions, and points of view shifting wildly within the same shot. At the same time, the camera is highly fluid for an early sound film, thanks to Dreyer conceiving the picture as a silent originally, and thus unburdened by the need to use sound equipment. The effects work is occasionally silly (such as the shadow gravedigger run in reverse, so that he fills the grave), but most of the time they're quite effective. The best of these is the strange shadow world that surrounds the vampire, most notably that of the peglegged gunman who kills the father. In one particularly disturbing sequence, the wandering shadow climbs a ladder and then crosses a room and rejoins the man. That's echoed in a segment where Gray himself has an out-of-the-body experience in which he forms a trinity with himself, emphasizing his ineffectuality and the fact he's in far over his head.

There are a number of iconic and highly memorable images, right from the beginning as the camera focuses on a gaunt man carrying a scythe, a harbinger of death who recurs within Gray's consciousness even after he should be far away. Giséle is seen in one sequence tied up, but her attitude and posture is not one of being captive, but seductive, suggesting that she may be falling under the vampiric spell as well. Perhaps the most famous is the fever dream in which Gray imagines himself to be paralyzed and placed into a coffin, from which he is carried through the streets and viewing the scene helplessly through a small window in the coffin lid. That sequece has been highly influential in several media, most famously in an EC Comics sequence that borrowed directly from it, but it still carries with it a chilling impact and a sensation of being buried alive. But perhaps the most frightening moment is a rather subtle one, as Léone mourns her apparent fate, and wishes she could die; as the thought of suicide (and its concomitant damnation) takes hold of her, her sensitive face changes to a cruel rictus as she gazes on Giséle, who clearly will be her first victim once she succumbs to vampirism. Schmitz was the only professional actor in the cast, and she makes the most of this brief sequence.

Because this is the German version of the film, there are a few trims that appear only in the French version of the movie; the German censors required the death scenes of two characters (including the vampire) to be shortened significantly, and those cuts are not reinstated here. They can, however, be seen in the documentary on the second disc, which is not entirely satisfactory but also avoids a major jarring change to the soundtrack. The music by Wolfgang Zeller is quite prominent for an early sound film, running through almost the entire picture. It's effective and fairly disturbing in its own right. An alternative English-language recreation of the German text intertitles and the shots of the book on vampires is also provided as an option; they're reasonably well integrated into the picture, which is good since the English subtitles are frequently very difficult to read.

Vampyr clearly has been a major influence on the work of David Lynch; the rhythms of the cutting, flickering lights and the rather dreamlike logic of the picture has direct parallels to much of Lynch's work, most notably Twin Peaks. The claustrophobia, even in the outdoor sequences, also has clear parallels to Lynch's work. Among other directors who picked up on the fine line (if there is any line at all) between reality and dreams that Vampyr espouses, we find Eurocult auteurs such as Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. Even if those creators aren't your cup of tea, Vampyr is a highly original and chilling work of its own, and it's wonderful to finally have a good edition of it on DVD.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.19:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Because of the need to keep space for the soundtracks, Vampyr is shot and presented in the exceptionally narrow aspect ratio of 1.19:1. The picture represents a massive improvement over that on the previous Image disc (now nearly ten years old), which often had massive black blocks for subtitles covering up burned-in subtitles in some other language (and happily those are utterly gone from this edition). Dreyer used a very soft focus through much of the picture (though a closeup of an engraving in Gray's room is startling in its clarity). Nevertheless, the picture here is much clearer than I've ever seen this picture look, and one can only conclude that much of the reputation of the movie for softness is due to improperly dupey prints. Yes, it's soft (especially on exterior shots), but not a blurry mess for the most part. The translucent rather than transparent windows help emphasize the effect Dreyer is seeking of his characters not being able to see clearly what's going on. There's no edge enhancement trying to make this into something sharper, which is certainly welcome. Greyscale is surprisingly good, and there's a fair amount of shadow detail to boot. While not shot as a model of clarity, the transfer beautifully represents the look of the film, and thus the mark is higher than one might expect. The main issues are flicker and mild wear in some sequences.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: There are limits to one can do with post-production 1932-era sound, it seems. The audio never has sounded good on this picture, and this disc is no exception, though much of the hiss heard on the Image disc is gone. Range is quite limited and sonic fidelity of Zeller's score is about what one would expect from such an antiquated track.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Production Notes
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Tony Rayns
Packaging: Digipak
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Audio essay by Dreyer
  2. Book with screenplay and source story Carmilla
Extras Review: Criterion pulls out all the stops for this set, starting with a commentary from Tony Rayns that is thoughtful, informative and thorough. He clearly could do an entire second track on the picture, and I rather wish he had, directing attention to a more shot-by-shot analysis since when he does so on this track it's quite excellent. The second disc offers a documentary on Dreyer from 1966 running 29m:58s; in it the director offers comments on most of his pictures, including Vampyr. The centerpiece is a visual essay by Casper Tybjerg, a Danish scholar who provides a guided tour that is part "making of" and part an analysis of the artistic influences on Dreyer such as Goya and Millet. The French sequences cut by the censors in Germany can be found here. Finally, there's audio of a 1958 radio broadcast in which Dreyer reads from an essay on film (in English), which runs 23m:28s. It tends to be quite dry, with Dreyer opining on the meanings of art and style, which comes off as rather pedantic and snooze-inducing.

Along with the discs, Criterion provides a substantial pamphlet with several essays, including a particularly good one from Martin Koerber regarding the restoration process. Also of note is a substantial interview with "Julian West" that will be required reading for any fan of the picture. A thick book includes the screenplay for the film (which also includes numerous deleted sequences that no longer exist), though it is based on the French screenplay rather than the handwritten Danish script that is referenced in other materials and seems to be an Urtext for all of the versions. The rest of the book is occupied by one of the stories in J. Sheridan Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly that were credited as the basis of the movie. Unfortunately, the rather commonly reprinted Carmilla is the one included, rather than the far more obscure The Room in the Dragon Volant, which was the source of the "burial alive" sequence.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Finally, a good version of Vampyr, which greatly heightens its effectiveness. Criterion supplies a hoard of extras so that few will be disappointed.


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