"I wanted to create the daydream on film.."
At what point can you tell that you are no longer awake? What has to happen before you are finally aware that what you are seeing is a dream, or maybe a nightmare? That question is asked, and the idea used, by the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer in one of his often considered weakest works. Vampyr is a horror film on paper, but it does not frighten anybody. Though this may sound like a failure, it is actually what makes the viewing experience so memorable.
With Vampyr, Dreyer was quoted as saying that he wanted to create a “daydream on film”. Shot between 1930 and 1931, Dreyer’s first desire was to keep the film out of the currently exploding “talkie” era. Knowing that the studio would not accept this as an option, Dreyer countered by writing only a very minimal amount of dialogue. The majority of the characters in the film are silent. They let their facial expressions and body language tell the story. This is an interesting move by the great director because he is also known for using amateur actors in his films. Rather than covering up bad acting with creative dialogue, Dreyer wrapped everyone up in his desired universe. The acting did not matter.
Along with the acting, it was rather obvious that the straightforward story was not supposed to be the viewer’s focus. Vampyr tells the story of a young occultist who is staying at an inn that is under the curse of a vampire. With strange sounds, disappearances and illnesses coming from seemingly nowhere, this is not an inn that I would recommend to anyone. In the hours of the night, an elderly man rushes into the room of the occultist. He gives him a book that explores the vampire curse. With everything explained, the story plays out in a very predictable fashion.
If the acting is bad and the story is simple, what is it that makes Vampyr an appealing film? Simply put, this is an aesthetically interesting film to the same degree of some of the surrealist classics. The film was shot completely on location to add to the maze-like sense of the film. Also, Dreyer had his cameraman shoot the film through a piece of gauze held three feet away from the camera. This manufactured a cloudy and dreamlike thickness for the screen that a viewer almost has to look through to see the action. This is a style that was most often seen by Louis Buñuel in his most cherished classics, but it can be argued that with Vampyr and earlier with The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Dreyer made the dream theatre style something of his own.
I would not say that Vampyr is a great film. In fact, I am not even sure that it is a very good film. It does succeed on an aesthetic level, and it is somewhat entertaining for an early horror. I hate to sound so snobbish, but I much prefer Dreyer’s work on The Passion of Joan of Arc. Vampyr is a neat film, but nothing more.