Oct 24, 2013


 Rather unfortunately, reading books on the occult is typically nowhere near as interesting as it is when it's sensationally depicted in films, or so has been my experience, especially when compared to the gravely ghoulish, fantastically phantasmagoric, and darkly yet delightfully romantic German-French semi-sound cinematic horror masterpiece Vampyr (1932) aka Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey aka Vampire: the Dream of Allan Grey aka The Vampire aka Castle of Doom aka Not Against the Flesh directed by Danish master auteur Carl Th. Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet aka The Word). Probably the only other vampire flick ever made (aside from Herzog’s remake, of course!) that deserves to be compared with F.W. Murnau’s German expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) aka Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, Vampyr, which was Dreyer’s first sound flick (though, despite being shot in three different languages, it is mostly silent and only features marginal dialogue), was both a critical and commercial failure upon its release, even receiving boos from audience members on its Berlin premiere on May 6, 1932, and also causing a riot in Vienna after audience members demanded to receive their money back. In fact, when Vampyr finally premiered in Dreyer’s home city of Copenhagen, Denmark in March 1933, the director did not even bother to show up, ultimately having a nervous breakdown and checking himself into a French mental institution not long after, as a seemingly sinister cinematic work that seemed to 'haunt' its director more than anyone else. Indeed, not until relatively recently has Vampyr gotten the due it deserves from film critics as it was once regarded as one of Dreyer’s weakest cinematic efforts, which was underscored by the fact that the director did not complete another film until a decade later when he made Day of Wrath (1943) aka Vredens Dag during the German occupation of Denmark. Rather loosely basing the script, which was co-written by Dreyer and his Danish friend Christen Jul, on Irish horror writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s five short story collection In a Glass Darkly (1872), most specifically the lesbian vampire tale Carmilla that also acted as a major influence for Bram Stoker's Dracula, and feature art direction by one of the great art director of German expressionism, Hermann Warm (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fritz Lang's Destiny), Vampyr is horror cinema at its most hopelessly hallucinatory and deliriously dream logic oriented, as if the aesthetic blueprint from every experimental artful horror film ever since, including Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Co-Produced and starring Count Nicolas de Gunzburg—a gay Jewish aristocrat and decadent dandy that was the son of a Russian father and Polish-Portuguese-Brazilian mother who agreed to fund Dreyer’s film so long as he could play the lead role in the hope of becoming an overnight movie star and who would later work as a editor for popular magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, evening acting as a mentor to a young Calvin Klein—Vampyr is a film that’s production is almost as strange and fragmented as its story, thereupon adding to its further mystification and legacy as one of the greatest, most idiosyncratically iconic, celestially creepy, and unnervingly foreboding and atmospheric vampire/horror flicks ever made. 

 Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg under the screen name of ‘Julian West’ who took the pseudonym to appease the wishes of his ‘royal’ family) is a rather dapper dandy in the spirit of Hanns Heinz Ewers (except nowhere near as handsome!) and Count Eric Stenbock (except nowhere near as mentally deranged!) who dabbles in Satanism and other forms of the occult, but he is about to reconsider his dark interests upon arriving and renting a room at an inn near the north-central French village of Courtempierre (where most of Vampyr was actually filmed). After being suddenly awakened by a somewhat elderly yet suavely dressed gent (Maurice Schutz) who warns him about preventing the death of a young girl and leaves him an ominous package with “To be opened upon my death” written on it, Mr. Gray is entrenched in a journey no less eerie than that of Dorian Gray, albeit more rewarding and less nihilistic in the end, because instead of becoming a ‘psychic vampire’ himself like the wanton Wilde Character, the quasi-pretty boy protagonist of Dreyer’s supernatural vampire flick—the third major film and second “talkie” to deal with the now popular undead horror subgenre—becomes a sort of accidental hero against heresy. After receiving the dubious package from the mysterious older man, Allan Gray takes it outside and is entranced by shadows, which lead him to a classic old castle where he encounters a creepy carnivalesque supernatural ‘shadow play’ of sorts featuring perniciously playful figures dancing on their own, but also an elderly blind woman and less than erotic vampire named Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard), as well as the Village Doctor (Jan Hieronimko), a Renfield-esque servant who is the most obedient and important human slave of the aristocratic bloodsucker. Naturally, Allan Gray eventually wanders out of the creepy castle and happens upon a manor and peeps through a window where he spots the old man who previously gave him the package being wounded with a shotgun, which is wielded by what seems to be a shadowy spirit. For whatever reason, servants at the manor let Gray inside and attempt to resuscitate the old man but it is too late. Gray ends up staying the night at the home and inevitably runs into a lovely lady named Giséle (Rena Mandel), the daughter of the dead Lord of the Manor, who leads the young occultnik to the family library where she describes how her sister Léone (popular Nazi actress Sybille Schmitz) is extremely ill. Not long after, Gray and Giséle spot Léone wandering around outside like a somnambulist, so they rush to her rescue, ultimately finding her unconscious with vampire bite marks on her neck. Finally, Gray remembers to open the package given to him by the Lord of the Manor since the old man is dead and all and finds a book entitled The Strange History of Vampires aka Die Seltsame Geschichte Der Vampyre by Paul Bonnat that gives him the imperative insights he needs to battle the demonic creatures and Léone from spiritual and physical slavery. 

 After reading from The Strange History of Vampires, with excerpts of which are featured in inter-titles throughout Vampyr, Allan Gray comes to the natural realization that Léone is the victim of a vampire. When the Village Doctor arrives at the Manor to take a look at lady Léone, Gray recognizes he was the same man he saw at the castle. Despite his uneasy feelings regarding the doctor, Gray agrees to a blood transfusion at the request of the dubious doc in the hope of saving Léone, whose sinister smile hints at the fact she is taking on a demonic persuasion, so he becomes rather debilitated by the loss of his vital fluids. Although weakened and semi-conscious, Gray awakes and is overcome by a fierce foreboding feeling and senses that Léone is in danger, so he rushes to the little lady and notices the doctor dropping a poison vial (he also hallucinates a skeleton handling said poison vial). Not surprisingly, the dastardly doctor flees the manor like a scared rat and Gray subsequently notices that Giséle is gone. Of course, Gray decides to chase down the heretical Herr Döktor, which leads him back to Marguerite Chopin’s castle and before he knows it, the young dandy hero has the uniquely unsettling vision of witnessing himself being buried alive in what is arguably the single most potent and iconic scene of Vampyr. After getting over the most morbid and personally petrifying of nightmares, Gray heroically saves Giséle, but the Village Doctor manages to make his great escape once again. Meanwhile, an Old Servant (Albert Bras) of the manor discovers the copy of The Strange History of Vampires that the old Lord gave Gray and comes to the realization that to kill a vampire, one must push an iron bar through their cold black heart. Eventually, Allan Gray and the Old Servant unite at the crypt of Marguerite Chopin, where they find the blind old hag sleeps and drive the iron bar through her, thereupon killing the seemingly senile succubus, which turns her body into a flesh-less skeleton, and thus lifting the curse of the vampire and allowing Léone to swiftly recover. For the revenge for the death of his master, the Old Servant of the manor kills the Village Doctor after discovering him hiding in an old mill by activating mill’s machinery, which drowns the deranged doc with flour, thus suffocating him to death in the process. In the end, Allan Gray and his new gorgeous lady friend Giséle board a small rowboat, cross a hazy river, and find themselves landing on a figuratively and literally brighter clearing, though the final scene of Vampyr is that of machinery at the mill, thus hinting all is not well after all in our post-industrial world. 

 Undoubtedly, one of the most interesting aspects of Dreyer’s Vampyr is that the filmgoer never knows for sure whether or not what protagonist Allan Gray sees and goes through are literal visions as they happen or merely the projections of fantasies from a funny fanboy with a dark sense of romanticism who has read one too many occult books. Indeed, while a ‘genre’ flick, Vampyr is nothing short of an innately cinematically experimental work that weaves in out of conscious and subconscious sequences without warning, as well as cuts between scenes that are seemingly unrelated, hence why the film probably irked audience members upon its original release as a film that goes to great pains to reject the sort of classic mythology typical of Murnau’s masterpiece Nosferatu (1922) for something more hermetic and less tangible but not less aesthetically visually tantalizing. Not unlike Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930) aka Le Sang d'un Poète and Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’or (1930) aka The Golden Age, Vampyr was a result of classical ‘artistic partonage’ that enabled the filmmaker a sort of artistic freedom and experimentation that is unheard of today, at least where somewhat mainstream cinema is concerned. As the one-time-film-star Count Nicolas de Gunzburg later confessed in an interview featured in the spring 1964 issue of Film Culture, “Like everyone else, I was dying to get into the movie,” and his royal vanity certainly paid off, at least after about half a century, as he ultimately become the unforgettable, if not cipher-like, star of Vampyre; one of the greatest and most mystifying pieces of celluloid horror art ever concocted. Interestingly, cult auteur Curtis Harrington (Night Tide, Games) mentioned a by-chance run-in with Gunzburg in the summer in 1949 in his autobiography Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business (2013), writing, “The leading player in Vampyr is billed as “Julian West.” So you can imagine my shock a few days later when I was in a projection room to see a preview showing of a new film, and Julian West himself walked in and sat down in the seat directly in front of me. It seemed uncanny; I could hardly believe my eyes! I gathered my courage and leaned forward in my seat; “Excuse me, sir, but did you appear in a film called Vampyr?” He turned and smiled. In a very deep voice, he replied, “That was a very long time ago.” It was only much later that I discovered his true identity,” thus making it seem like the Count was somewhat embarrassed by his all-too-brief career as an actor/producer.  As for the ‘curse of Vampyre,’ aside from temporarily destroying Dreyer’s career and mind, and guaranteeing that Count de Gunzburg would not be the next Rudolf Valentino, Sybille Schmitz—one of the only real actors in the film, and who would go on to become a popular Nazi actress (she could not have had more fitting initials!) playing femme fatales and other non-Aryan harlots, but was later blacklisted in the post-WWII era due to her unflattering status as a notably naughty National Socialist actress, despite her decidedly dark features—would, not unlike her character in Vampyre, become the victim of a doctor who fed her morphine addiction at an inflated price, even assisting in the fallen diva’s suicide in 1955 via an overdose on sleeping pills, which was more than morbidly melodramatically depicted in the UFA-inspired neo-noirish flick Veronika Voss (1982) aka Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  Featuring next to nil blood and Christian iconography (which are replaced by sinister scythes and infant skeletons!), a less than alluring hag vampiress and zero eroticism, a somewhat wayward moral compass, an unreliable 'visual narrator' as the protagonist, an oneiric aesthetic that blurs the line between ominous and aesthetically orgasmic, a dead serious yet surreal story with nil camp value, Vampyr was certainly a success where artistry and psychological horror are concerned as demonstrated by auteur Carl Th. Dreyer's remark regarding his intention with the film, “I wanted to create the daydream on film…to show that horror is not a part of the things around us, but of our own subconscious mind,” as I personally can think of few other celluloid chimeras that are so equally charismatic yet creepy and alluring yet foreboding, as if the director had found a healthy middle ground between heaven and hell.

-Ty E

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