Anthology Film Archives: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr
Anthology Film Archives
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Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) may not be considered an “underground” film, but it sure as hell looks like one, belonging to the avant-garde tradition of the “trance film,” a term coined by the writer P. Adams Sitney in his book Visionary Film.
Sitney doesn’t actually write about Vampyr in Visionary Film, but he pulls his definition of a “trance film” from another film writer, Parker Tyler. In his book The Three Faces of Film, Tyler wrote:
The chief imaginative trend among Experimental or avant-garde filmmakers is action as a dream and the actor as a somnambulist.
That was true in 1960. Sitney traced the evolution of the “trance film” from the classic German Expressionist silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the work of American avant-garde filmmakers like Kenneth Anger (Fireworks), Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon) and Gregory Markopoulos (Twice a Man). The main trend in underground filmmaking then was still to follow somewhat of a narrative structure, but a loopy, dream-like one.
Vampyr was produced in 1930 and 1931, but wasn’t released to theaters until 1932. It was delayed so that Universal’s monster movies Dracula and Frankenstein could hit screens first. Vampyr is about as far removed from those flicks as a horror film can get.
This isn’t a film about bats and fangs. Instead, a traveler gets tied up in spooky events in and around a castle in an old village. The film takes place over the course of one night where the outsider is haunted by strange visions and encounters an old man and his two daughters who are plagued by a vampyr.
The narrative isn’t terribly important here as the film is a swirl of surreal images filmed through gauze. Also, as J. Hoberman describes, the film “has few establishing shots and many abrupt cuts.” It’s a film that’s a bit difficult to describe and challenging to watch, but the haunting mood it sets can be highly unsettling.
Vampyr was also Dreyer’s first sound film, but there’s very little dialogue in it, which is good because what dialogue there is, is in Danish with no English subtitles. For those not in NYC and can’t make it to the screening, Criterion released a DVD version in 1998.