If I’m being honest, my theme for Octoberween is a tinge pretentious; I like to think that I’m approaching it non-pretentiously, but the basic idea is that I’m reviewing the strangest horror movies from around the world,* mostly ones that are quite a bit older. Thus, it’s appropriate that my last Octoberween ’14 review focuses on one of the prime examples of pretense (more so on the part of viewers, perhaps, than the film itself) in horror, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932)—which Second Breakfast‘s Chris Melville took a wonderful jab at in his list of Octoberween recommendations. This quote particularly struck me after seeing the movie for the first time:
Watch it and then desperately pretend that you had any idea at all what was going on so that you can impress all your other Pretentious Film Student friends who are also desperately pretending that they had any idea what was going on.
Now, the reason that surprised me so much is because Vampyr, for all of its famous imagery, is an incredibly straight forward movie—at least, in terms of the story. A dude goes spooky-searching. He finds a weird town with weird stuff. Turns out that a weird dude he meets has two daughters who are in a town haunted by a vampire, and one of them is in danger of becoming a vampire. At one point, he donates blood and becomes lightheaded, thus having a vision/hallucination where he walks around and sees some weird stuff.
The plot is actually pretty disappointing. It’s heavily moralistic in a way that is more disruptive than the plots of, say, Nosferatu (1922) or Dracula (1931). Maybe I am experiencing a case of “Seinfeld Is Unfunny”, but nothing about the bare-bones story is unique or engaging. And that’s why Chris’s comment is so perceptive: people think that there has to be more to the story, but they don’t understand a very important distinction between story—or what is told—and discourse—or how the story is told.** The story of Vampyr is entirely average. The way it is told is not.
Vampyr unfolds like a nightmare, with events occuring in unusual ways for a horror story. Major plot points are skimmed over in title cards, but then we watch the protagonist, Allan Grey (Julian West), walk around a chateau for ten minutes. The pacing in this movie is a mess, but that’s because it mimics the basic, irrational logic we experience in dreams. A useful comparison to Vampyr would be the movies of David Lynch. Both Dreyer and Lynch avoid a standard structure and logic in order to evoke an inability to understand, which is done through really strange sequences and imagery.
Returning to Chris’s comment, to claim that you get every little symbol and detail in Vampyr is to decidedly not get it. It’s meant to wash over us and place us in a nightmare similar to the one Grey is going through. You can read into every little symbol, but to focus on those specifics is to miss the bigger picture, which is the way that Dreyer makes Vampyr a haunting horror flick through how he delivers the story.
While the pacing has a lot to do with the disorienting effect of the movie, the major contributor is this movie’s visual effects, which are still stunning to this day. These camera tricks and other uses of strange imagery are creepy, and not in the sense that often applies to older movies—i. e., “Oh, that’s cool, and was probably really scary at its time.” Early on, Grey goes exploring in the chateau I mentioned earlier, but finds only shadows with no sources. He follows them, and the sense of strangeness surrounds us to the point that, when we finally see a real person, we are both relieved and frightened. There is also the simple but incredibly unsettling shot of a man holding a scythe while ringing a bell and looking over the water. It’s all simultaneously real and unreal, and Dreyer knows how to meld the two to create something that disturbs us on a subconscious level.
Vampyr is far from a perfect movie. While the pacing is screwy for a purpose, it can induce boredom as much as it induces fear, and the moralistic storytelling gets old very quickly. Still, so much of it is timelessly creepy, and that’s one of the hardest things a director can accomplish. Even horror movies from the 80s have lost their touch in the present day. If you want horror history this Octoberween and some genuine thrills, then you cannot do much better than Vampyr.
*Well, from western Europe and eastern Asia. I didn’t cover nearly as much terrain as I’d hoped, because even if I am pretentious, I’m unculturedly so. I don’t even know that unculturedly isn’t a word. Jeez.
**Yes, I see the irony in criticizing pretentious film students while using Structuralist terminology. In my defense, though, the difference between the words is reasonably understandble, and if there are words that exist to describe something that we can understand intuitively, then I think it’s better to use them rather than pretend they don’t exist.