BFI Classics: Vampyr

Author: David Rudkin


Carl Dreyer’s 1932 classic vampire film is something of an enigma. It appears in different versions of varying quality, was synchronised simultaneously into German, French and English, went by several different sub-titles and has confused many a critic and viewer over the years. This is something that BFI Classics author David Rudkin doesn’t overlook. At one point early in the book he argues that Vampyr is a ‘difficult’ text, that it’s “difficult to follow, or to like, or to accept as the work of a master. For some it is of stature, but a stature difficult to explain or mediate – indeed, difficult at times to perceive. Some of its images are even difficult to see. For some it is not worth any of this effort.” But this is when you view the film as either entertainment or a normal horror narrative. Which is not what Vampyr is about.

I first came across this film when I was about 12 years old in a book about horror films. Within its pages there were images of the film that have haunted me ever since, those of a dead face staring out of a coffin and another of an old man’s face staring into the coffin. That is the secret of the film’s enigma; the sense of mortality combined with surreal images (and I use that term in its proper sense) that haunt virtually every frame of the film. Other images will also haunt: faces staring through windows, a bell ringer with a scythe looking distinctly like death or a peg-legged man whose shadow walks away from him. These are truly haunting and mysterious images.

Nevertheless it’s easy to see where Rudkin’s aforementioned critical viewing of the film comes from as there’s no traditional narrative structure and no coherent story on first viewing. Loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s book Camilla, Rudkin makes no mention of this film within the context of other films, either contemporary or more recent. Apart from talking about other films by the director Carl Theodor Dreyer, Rudkin doesn’t mention any other film. Rudkin, himself a dramatist and screenwriter, dedicates a whole chapter to Dreyer, whom he’s clearly passionate about. I’ve seen most of Dreyer’s films and can appreciate where that passion comes from as well as his undeniable genius (see The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Ordet (1950)). But it’s unfortunate that Rudkin chose to dismiss the clear contemporary influences of such German Expressionist classics as Nosferatu (1922) and Warning Shadows (1923), as well as contemporary films like the surrealist L’Age d’Or (1932) by Luis Bũnuel and Salvador Dalí, a film that shares equally strange and bizarre unsettling imagery. What about later Hammer films such as The Vampire Lovers (1970), a horror exploitation picture that is also based on Le Fanu’s ‘Camilla’? Despite this, Rudkin does have plenty to say about Dreyer’s films.

I’ve already talked about the images that haunt every frame of the film. And it’s unfortunate for the reader that Rudkin chooses to write this book as a frame-by-frame breakdown, referring to each image by its scene number (ie. #323). This doesn’t allow for a proper analysis of the film other than as a ‘storyboard’ – well the author is a screenwriter after all! The only analysis in the first three short chapters: the first a dedicated film biography of Dreyer, the second placing Vampyr within its literary sources in the narrative of several Le Fanu stories (not just Camilla). The third chapter discusses the film’s problems – the problems of the different prints, critical perception, sound quality, differing versions and as an early European sound film.

Yet it’s undeniable that the imagery, from Dreyer and cameraman Rudolph Maté, is astounding and Rudkin does pay homage to that here. As an accompaniment to the film one would be better off reading the booklet published with Eureka’s recent DVD release, but Rudkin’s first three chapters at least set Vampyr in context with Dreyer himself.

 Chris Hick

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