On Saturday Matinee, we showcase full-length films from or about the diesel era.
The next October entry in our series of ghoulish films is the nightmarish Vampyr from 1932.
What you need to know
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer fuses fantasy and reality in this landmark tale, which ranks among cinema's greatest horror movies. Holiday reveler Allan Gray (Julian West) takes a room in an eerie European village inn and is awakened when an elderly gent lets himself in, leaving a parcel inscribed, "To be opened in the event of my death." Gray later witnesses the man's murder, opens the package and realizes a supernatural killer is on the loose.
Shot entirely on location in Courtempierre, France, The film was written by Dreyer and Christen Jul based on elements from J. Sheridan Le Fanu's collection of supernatural stories In a Glass Darkly. Dreyer draws from two of the stories for Vampyr, one being Carmilla, a vampire story with a lesbian subtext and the other being The Room in the Dragon Volant about a live burial.
For much of the cast, this was there only film appearance since they were not professional actors. Henriette Gérard who played the vampire was a French widow, Jan Hieronimko who played the village doctor was a Polish journalist, Rena Mandel who played Gisèle was an artist's model. Even "Julian West", (real name: Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg) who played Allan Grey, was French-born member of Russian nobility who agreed to finance the film in exchange for the leading part. He later emigrated to America where he became a powerful fashion journalist and mentor to designers like Calvin Klein.
Why this film is important
Although completed in 1931, the film was delayed by the UFA for a year so that Universal could release Dracula and Frankenstein to the market. Unfortunately, reaction to the first cut of Vampyr was so poor, it actually caused riots when a theater in Vienna refused to refund its upset patrons. It wasn't until the 1990s that the film was given a proper cut - spliced together from surviving French and German prints - that it was able to capture the hearts of modern day film critics
This film seems to represent everything great about the era from which it came. Special effects are used in this film not as a way to dazzle the audience, but to communicate a powerful, dream-like trance. Dreyer's other film "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is similar in that it is able to communicate a powerful message through stunning and masterful cinematography. If you're patient with the slow pacing and ambiguous story line of Vampyr, you'll find that this film offers many striking images and a compelling mood not typically seen in other movies of the 1930s - 1940s.
Until next week's Saturday Matinee rises from the movie crypt, we at Dieselpunks wish you happy haunting!