Blu-ray: ‘Vampyr’ on Criterion

Carl Th. Dreyer's 19322 horror classic

An early sound film shot with a distinctive and evocative silent film aesthetic, Vampyr (Denmark, 1932) is a horror movie as tone poem. Dialogue is sparse and large blocks of text (either intertitles or pages from a book of vampire lore) provide the exposition. It’s an eerily abstract film of vague motivations and ethereal imagery (exaggerated by the worn state of the source prints) from the opening scenes.

Criterion Collection

Our hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), is a vaguely interested in the supernatural, according the titles, but he walks into this cursed village like a dazed innocent whose walking tour (or perhaps butterfly hunt? he’s hoisting a large net over his shoulder) of the familiar countryside takes him into unfamiliar terrain, a cursed village that is, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the world. A villager with a scythe rings a bell on a misty lake as he arrives, already conjuring a feeling of death and portents of supernatural things to come.

Gray discovers shadows without bodies and a tormented young woman with vague wounds treated by an unnerving doctor who only visits at night, and embarks on a spirit journey to watch his own funeral (from both within and without his casket simultaneously). Julian West (the pseudonym of Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, who also financed the film) is a blank, inexpressive actor, more convincing as a creepy corpse than a living hero, but his languid expression makes his passive protagonist just another part of the dreamy world.

A definitive version of Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr was for many years a holy grail of cinema. Dreyer prepared separate German, French and English versions of the film, and even though he shot them without sound and post-synched all the dialogue, he had his cast perform their dialogue in all three languages for greater verisimilitude in the dubbing. The negative (and variant takes of dialogue scenes) and original soundtrack recordings are long lost and the surviving prints are slightly different from one another (not just because of language differences, but censorship, damage, and even Dreyer’s own recutting after the disastrous premiere) and incomplete, not to mention well-worn and scratched and faded.

Vampyr [Blu-ray]
Vampyr [DVD]

Criterion’s edition is mastered from the restoration by 1998 Martin Koerber—the closest we have to definitive—that was the same source for the 2008 DVD, newly remastered in 2K with a fresh digital clean-up. It’s not dramatically different from the DVD release but it is a little cleaner and, of course, features greater detail and texture.

It’s in German (almost nothing exists of the original English version) and Criterion also offers an alternate English language version with excellent recreations of the look and feel of the German intertitles and book pages (the dialogue is in German in both versions) in this new two-disc special edition.

The Blu-ray features all the supplements of the DVD. There’s commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns, who discusses the film in detail—from Dreyer’s style to production details to observations and interpretations—with intelligence. He has an engaging manner even while in the scholarly mode. Jörgen Roos directs the half-hour career retrospective “Carl Th. Dreyer” from 1966 (which features interviews with Dreyer) and there’s a 36-minute visual essay on Dreyer’s influences by scholar Casper Tybjerg, an audio-only recording of a 1958 radio broadcast of Dreyer reading an essay about filmmaking, and a booklet with essays, notes in the restoration and a print interview with Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg. The box set also features a paperback volume featuring the screenplay and the Sheridan Le Fanu short story that inspired it.

Disc provided by Criterion for review purposes.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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