Review: Vampyr – The Traum of Allan Gray (1932)

Vampyr – The Traum of Allan Gray (1932)

Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer | 65 minutes | fantasy, horror | Actors: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Henriette Gérard, Albert Bras, N. Babanini, Jane Mora

This 1932 film is directed by director Carl Dreyer and is based on the novel ‘In a glass darkly’ by Sheridan Le Fanu. In this story it is a vampire who threatens a small village community, but director Dreyer uses an approach in the design of his film that makes comparison with other vampire or horror films difficult. First of all, it is noticeable from the start that the atmosphere in the film is dark and murky. Not only because of the effective use of light and dark or because it was shot in black and white, but especially because of the slightly flickering, sometimes grainy and with a light gray tint. The often vague, misty and out-of-focus contours of people, objects and landscapes quickly catch the eye. A consequence perhaps because the ravages of time have not left this production from 1932 untouched? Not really no. Director Dreyer didn’t have it in mind originally. But a part of the film that had already been shot was accidentally damaged, and when director Dreyer saw the result on the silver screen, he decided he wanted to shoot the entire film in this style. And are reasons for that? Dreyer had a horror film in mind in which atmosphere and style were paramount. And the choice he made regarding the presented image quality of this film provided him with a good start in any case.

In addition, the high ‘silent film’ quality of Dreyer’s production is striking. ‘Vampyr’ was originally also intended as a silent film. However, scenes with spoken words were added at a later stage, but the number of spoken words remains limited. In addition, Dreyer allows the story to be played at a slow, if not to say sometimes very slow pace. Because effective use is not only made of light and dark, but also of silence and sound, the story now and then comes to a standstill, among other things to present the viewer with pieces of text from a book with which the necessary explanation with regarding vampirism is given. Although this gradually reveals the nature of the danger that threatens the town of Courtempierre, the design of the events deviates quite a bit from that as we know it from vampire films of later years. Little action, no wild chases or too fierce confrontations, hardly any bloodshed and the vampire itself is also rarely seen. While watching this film, it will become clear to the viewer that it is not so much the title ‘Vampyr’, but rather the subtitle ‘der Traum des Allan Grey’ that does justice to the content of this film. Because in addition to the above elements, the floating content of the events in this film is also striking. Because Dreyer seems to go in several directions with his story, various scenes seem to have no purpose and it is also often unclear which events in the story should be regarded as reality or as an illusion or dream. Reality and fiction repeatedly merge into each other, repeatedly only after a while water appears to have happened exactly. And in combination with each other, supported by separate camera angles and a successful haunting soundtrack, the various elements in their entirety form a dreamlike event such as can be found in few films. A dreamlike, and at some points also spooky film with here and there nightmarish features, of which the scene in which the main character Allan Gray watches the events around him from his own coffin is a prime example. But within the story, it is also the other characters, their actions and many other points that Dreyer has properly shaped. The unclear identity of various seemingly aimlessly passing characters, the shadows that dance across the walls as if by themselves, the not only sparse but sometimes incoherent dialogues, the long lag behind the facts of protagonist Allan Grey, the defenselessness of the various intended human prey of the vampire and their fear of the evil that threatens them, the victims who present themselves one by one, the evil traits that one of the vampire’s victims begins to show… it effectively contributes to the dark atmosphere within the set-up of this film that characterize this production. All the more so since the human accomplice of the vampire is clearly visible, but the vampire itself barely passes by. However, the consequences of his evil actions cannot be avoided. And because they slowly but surely come to the fore, an all the more subtle threat hanging in the background is constantly perceptible.

In its totality, this film exudes an atmosphere of vagueness, confusion, claustrophobia, despair, decay and ruin. A film that responds to various human fears, and in which this will also be recognized by many viewers. And because of the feelings of unrest that will overwhelm many of them as a result, it can be said that director Dreyer’s plan can be called successful. However, there are also some imperfections in this film. The actors and actresses appearing in the film are almost all amateurs, which is all too obvious with several of them. Except for a few characters, the characters are not really explored in depth, and actual involvement is repeatedly omitted. The story itself turns out to have little depth in the end, and in some parts of the film that unmistakably count as ‘reality’ in the story, there appear to be a few holes.

Apart from that, due to Dreyer’s approach, this film will also come across as a difficult film to most viewers. A film that requires careful attention, because apart from the text presented with an explanation about vampirism, little to no explanation is given. Reason enough not to miss anything within the already vague images and the surreal character of this film. That also means that this film must be undergone with the necessary patience. And to really appreciate it, the viewer must also surrender to the dreamy atmosphere that characterizes this production. Not every viewer will be able to do that, but for those who can immerse themselves in the atmosphere of this film, for lovers of classical works and of the so-called ‘cinéma bizarre/fantastique’, the introduction to Dreyer’s film is a recommendable and unique viewing experience.

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