Marking the 90 years since the release of Vampyr in 1932, this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray edition is the best restoration of the film available. It has a host of extras too in a beautifully packaged product, but is it worth buying if you already have previously released versions?
When a young man visits a small, isolated rural village, he soon realises that its residents are unknowingly in the grip of a monstrous force, a vampiric old woman, and her small cohort. The story focuses on a single family with whom the aristocratic young man is staying - one daughter has already been a victim of the vampyr and is fading under its influence, whilst the other is being lined up for the next meal… The man must find the source of the evil that’s overshadowing the family and the village in time to rescue the lives and the souls of the two sisters.
Whilst Vampyr is now regarded as an absolute trailblazing classic, it didn't start its life like that. History has been generous to the film but, at the time, Vampyr was considered something of a disappointment and did not perform well. The film suffered from being on the cusp of the transition between silent and talking pictures, making the dialogue both sparse and clunky. On top of this, and despite being filmed and completed beforehand, Universal’s Dracula was released first, was an enormous hit and drained some of the blood from Vampyr’s release.
But there’s a reason why the film's reputation has continued to grow. Dreyer’s Vampyr is a strange, unsettling nightmare of a film. It’s a simple tale, filmed to look and feel like a dream, its disconcerting imagery and style throwing the viewer off balance at all turns. The techniques Dreyer uses are ahead of their time, the camera swooping around, projection and double exposures creating ghostly shadows, and the whole thing feels like something you need to wake up from, a visual poem that brings on bad dreams.
Three scenes in particular still have the power to chill to the bone - the out of body experience which sees the young protagonist observing his own burial from inside the coffin, the utterly menacing moment where the vampyr part of the infected sister takes over and she starts to look upon her sibling simply as prey, and the quite horrific death of the Doctor, buried alive in a flour mill. These three scenes alone are enough to warrant the film's reputation, but there’s so much more.
Whilst The film’s reception stopped Dreyer from making any more films for a decade, so influential was it that you can really see its impact on films as varied as Copolla’s Dracula and the neglected Polanski horror-comedy Dance of the Vampires.
As for the extras, most have been available on previous releases, including both commentaries, from critic Tony Rayns and from Guillermo del Toro, who absolutely adores this film. There’s a new but not too interesting interview with Kim Newman, a documentary about Dreyer himself and a fascinating look at The Baron. That’s Nicolas de Gunzburg, a wealthy gay aristocrat who agreed to support the film financially if he could have the lead role. It’s a brilliantly bizarre tale.
Owners of the Criterion Collection disc from 2017 need not fork out for this update but, if you’re new to Vampyr or just a completist, it’s well worth owning.Vampyr is available on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment! on May 30th