I originally planned this to be a Page to Screen article comparing Carl Theodor Dreyer’s (1899-1968) 1932 horror film Vampyr with In a Glass Darkly (1872), the collection of mystery stories penned by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). The film is regularly noted as being based on the short fiction works, but after reading Sheridan Le Fanu’s stories, watching the movie, and ingesting several articles written about both, I have come to realize that the extent to which the film is actually derived from the stories is debatable. So I’ll write primarily about Vampyr, as the new Criterion Collection edition of the film makes it timely, and I’ll add some comments about Sheridan Le Fanu’s short fiction.
Prior to Vampyr, Danish filmmaker Dreyer’s most recent work was the one many consider his masterpiece: 1928’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc. Vampyr, a combination French-German production, was the auteur’s first sound feature. Dreyer’s experience with silent cinema is evident in his debut talkie, as he used title cards to tell much of the story even while including (sparse) dialogue between characters. More significantly, and also indicative of the way the director was accustomed to showing tales on the big screen, most of what drives the horror film is its visual aspects; more on that in a moment.
The plot of Vampyr revolves around a curious young man who wanders into a web of occult doings in a French village. He encounters vampirism, damsels in distress, and a suspicious doctor who looks like a mashup of Mark Twain, Harpo Marx, and Jack Elam. The protagonist is learning about vampires—reading about their history in a book left to him by a chance acquaintance, now deceased—at the same time that he is experiencing some of their deeds in a first-hand, real-time manner. Along with a young woman he comes to know, he takes up the cause of that woman’s sister, who appears to have been afflicted by an elderly local lady who doubles as a vampire. In attempting to come to the rescue of the stricken girl, the hero is putting his own life at great risk.
Truth be told, as a story, Vampyr leaves something to be desired. It’s slipshod at times, not as coherent as it could have been. Maybe the problem was Dreyer hadn't quite found his way with sound films. Yet, the movie is still deserving of the critical acclaim it now generally receives (in its day, it bombed with both critics and audiences) because of its look and atmosphere. The film is beautifully shot, and its tone is transcendental.
A few of the stills and scenes are so affecting in their eeriness and otherworldliness that, as you watch, you almost hope the characters don’t start talking again too soon because you just want to sit there and gaze at the dazzling images without interruption. Some of the shots give the viewer a jolt of fear, while others make one feel as if they must be dreaming rather than viewing a feature film. It’s a trippy watch.
It’s said that in making the movie, Dreyer was hoping to take advantage of the subject of vampires, which had become a fashionable theme at the time. But he hardly caved to trendiness or made a blatant appeal to commercialism here. Vampyr is a highly experimental film that is likely to leave many watchers dumbfounded and confused while thrilling others. It’s closer to the absurdist, surreal cinema of Luis Bunuel than it is to straight genre horror cinema.
The aforementioned Sheridan Le Fanu story collection comes highly recommended, particularly the novella Carmilla, which is the piece most cited as possibly being an inspiration for Vampyr. There are some elements of Carmilla that can be vaguely recognized in Dreyer’s movie, but it’d be a long stretch to call the film an adaptation of that or any of the stories from In a Glass Darkly.
In any case, Carmilla is a masterpiece of horror fiction. A vampire tale that predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by about a quarter century, it’s a mesmerizing, sexy, frightening, suspenseful, and surreal novella about a roving lesbian vampire and her attempts to seduce and possess the blood and soul of an innocent young girl. It’s a masterfully written work that combines hypnotizing dream-like qualities with freaky scares.
Several other notable films have been based on (to varying extents) or influenced by Carmilla; my favorite among those—and one of the better vampire movies in existence to my thinking—is the Hammer title Twins of Evil (1971). If you appreciate quality horror/vampire stories—and really, if you just like good fiction, period—and you haven’t experienced Carmilla, shelve your current read now and give the short amount of time required to ingest this powerful tale.
Criterion’s deluxe edition of Vampyr comes with extras that add great value to the full package. In addition to a restored version of the film, there are bonus features that provide insights into the movie and its maker. There’s also a booklet containing essays by several film scholars, including one who is a relative of Sheridan Le Fanu’s. One of those write-ups mentions a compelling case that’s been made which suggests that Vampyr can be seen as an autobiographical film that explores aspects of Dreyer’s own life as much as it is a cinematic version of Sheridan Le Fanu’s fiction. Best of all among the additional pieces is a separate paperback book that contains the screenplay of Vampyr, which Dreyer co-wrote with Christen Jul, as well as the majestic Carmilla.
See also: Page to Screen: Nightmare Alley
Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.