Vampyr (1932)

21 12 2008

I’d put this on the same level as Dreyer’s Gertrud, which is the only other film of his I’ve seen so far. Both are decent films, but not really the indisputable masterpieces that people make them out to be. Ironically enough, this has none of the problems of Dreyer’s last film, but at the same time, that film has none of the problems of this one. While Gertrud is a nice character-driven movie that fits a lot closer to my cinematic ideal than Vampyr, it is also a bit too theatrical and talkative for my liking. This, on the other hand, has very little dialogue and is definitely more formally intriguing, but it ends up being more of a “interesting” document of cinematic progression than a genuinely great experience.

The whole “horror” element might put this at a immediate handicap for many cinephiles, myself included. All the descriptions of being not exactly a horror film in the conventional sense, but a bizarre series of episodes that give off the tone of a nightmare, are accurate but only so for a limited amount of time. The first ten minutes or so are as haunting and striking as the film’s champions claim it to be, but eventually, Dreyer substitutes his beautiful imagery for rather straightforward (and tedious) “vampire” film proceedings. It definitely maintains its “weirdness” but it also becomes slightly silly, bordering on the conventional horror film that Dreyer is suppose to transcend.

One of the biggest problems in the film’s shift to a more conventional tone is the much talked about on screen texts, which literally slows the film down. I can’t criticize Dreyer for expecting 1930s audiences to read slowly, but the text is completely unnecessary. The text really just reads like a “introduction to vampires” which features plenty of information that mainstream culture has already made common knowledge. If these textual selections were omitted, the film would probably be about five minutes shorter, and it already is pretty short to begin with. I admire Dreyer’s intention in building a film’s substance on atmosphere, but on-screen text does nothing but dilute the tone, which is already suffering from the shift to more conventional genre drama.

Even with these problems, there is something very interesting going on here. Again, maybe it is just the intentional sense of “weirdness” but the film is fascinating. That is probably the biggest compliment I can give Dreyer, because it may be a reach to say his film is actually impressive outside of his formal experiments. It may help a great deal that I have a soft spot for David Lynch’s Eraserhead, which clearly takes some cues from Vampyr. The way in which Julian West observes the strange occurences that make up most of the film’s content bears a great resemblance to Jack Nance. Overall, I’d have to say the acting here is really impressive, even though the characters aren’t given much time to be established. This was probably Dreyer’s intention anyway, since Allan Grey is meant to be a stand-in observer for the audience. So while I’m glad I finally saw this, I can’t really say I love it as everyone else does.

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