Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
It’s October, so you know what that means: it’s time for some horror movies! If you’re like me, you actually probably watch a good number of horror movies throughout the year, especially in a year where two gems like The Innkeepers and Cabin in the Woods both came out in the spring. But I’ve always enjoyed horror movies, even if I don’t really find myself with the opportunity to write about them very often.
That changes in October. Criterion Cuts, already one of my more fluid projects, puts on a witch hat and douses itself in fake blood to take up all five October Mondays with an array of spooky, scary, or thrilling selections from the Criterion Collection. As you might expect, that’s going to be an eclectic set of movies, but that’s the joy of horror: the array of what is scary or unsettling is so vast that to delve into it will take you through all genres and the entire history of film, as even our earliest films endeavored to elicit that most primal emotion—fear.
It’s the early 30s. Vampires are big, thanks to the impact of Murnau’s Nosferatu, still in many ways the defining piece of horror cinema of the era. The problem is, Dracula is totally off limits because of difficulties with the Stoker estate, who were still embroiled in legal wrangling with Murnau over his attempts to adapt the work. The movies have always been the movies, for better or worse. But Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, deciding to avoid that whole mess entirely, digs deeper into literature to find J Sheridan Le Fanu’s In A Glass Darkly, primarily Camilla, one of the early female vampire stories that borrowed heavily from the real-life story of Elizabeth Bathory.
Because it was, even then, in the public domain, Dreyer went ahead and used it and then heavily modified it, throwing out as much as he wanted and changing things to suit his style. Given that the Camilla story is rife with lesbian subtext, that might have been as much of a content decision an artistic one, but I wouldn’t speculate too heavily about that. Dreyer was already famous at the time for his silent films, slowly adopting to this new and very uncertain sound technology. But he didn’t want to make a conventional sound film, limited by stages and microphones (especially since, given it was a European film, there was a demand for French, German, and English versions), and thus, the strangeness of Vampyr was decided by necessity even before Dreyer set out to make the movie itself.
Which is a lot of preface to say that Vampyr is a weird god damn movie. A great movie, that much is clear early on, but one of the earliest and most poignant examples of dream logic run amok, the kind of horror movie that moves even further past the subjectivity of German Expressionist horror into the realm of true fever dreams, never truly recaptured by horror cinema until the giallo films, and almost wholly absent from today’s genre fare. Vampyr is a simple premise wrapped in a story of so many layers and so much disconnection that people are still pulling it apart 80 years later and finding more to appreciate.
In short: the story is about Allan Gray (Nicholas de Gunzburg), a man living in a remote village where he encounters an old man who delivers to him a mysterious package. Gray, investigating, gets wrapped up in a murder mystery surrounding an old castle on the outskirts of town. Two of the daughters of the Lord living there are taking ill from some mysterious force, and Gray’s package seems to be a key to deciphering what is going on. So, against his will, Gray is wrapped into this mystery, which involves a vampire that he alone has the details to hunt down and kill. When he discovers it, its too late for the sisters and almost too late for him, but the old woman vampire finally meets her end through his efforts. A simple vampire tale, to be sure, but its everything wrapped around it that makes it stand out.
Vampyr is a film where things happen without a typical cause and effect. Gray is inhabiting creepy spaces where shadows of people move without being cast by anything, where doors open without reason, where light shines from places there are no lights and a heavy fog of the mind is over everything. The actual threat of vampires seems very remote compared to the oppressive strangeness, the heavy pall of death, that lingers over every dusty hallway and lingering shadow. And its that sense of mortality that frames the entirety of the movie, including its most memorable sequence.
Late in the movie, Gray passes out while giving a blood transfusion and has a vision of himself being buried alive. It is one of the most profound moments of the movie, a dream of death and living and the thin veil between the two, a vision of skeletons and funerals that brings this concept of vampirism up as a bridge between life and death. The inevitable truth is that one can only live by consuming life, an endless cycle of staving off death until one cannot anymore, and drifts into the fog of nothingness. And that’s not only a beautiful concept, but it’s a traditional one with a name: memento mori, a nearly forgotten subgenre of (primarily medieval) art that was all about acknowledging the inevitability of human mortality. It literally means “memory of death,” a concept that our living-obsessed, yolo-spouting culture has mostly forgotten or denied.
And it’s that philosophical grace, married to the context-less weirdness, that elevates Vampyr into more than just an also-ran behind Nosferatu. This is a much more considered film, a beautiful picture of life and death that maybe isn’t exactly scary, but is imbued with the sort of creepiness of beautifully still graveyards and old hand-tinted photographs, the faint rot of sick beds with their wilting flowers and ancient people holding onto the last scraps of ancient things. Vampyr is a beautiful film, less horror than existential sadness, but as much about the mortal terror of the soul as any actual vampiric menace.