Imagine that we’re sitting in a room. Now imagine that we know there is a corpse standing behind the door. Everything is changed. That is what we have to capture. This, apparently, was director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s goal when he made Vampyr in 1932. Drawing heavily on the visual vocabulary of silent films, Dreyer succeeded in producing a movie that generates a steadily growing sense of wrongness, a dreamlike state where it is difficult to put your finger on why you’re uncomfortable.
The film achieves this effect through several techniques. First, rather than oscillating between lucidity and surrealism, the entire movie is relentlessly dreamlike, giving the viewer no moments of normalcy in which to regroup. This effect is achieved through a combination of blurred-edge visuals, unsettling silence and physical anomalies that quietly undermine the viewer’s sense of reality.
There are the typical anomalies of course, like keys that inexplicably turn in locks and doors that swing open on their own, but it’s really the behaviour of shadows that builds so much of the unease. The protagonist, Allan Gray emerges from an inn at night and spies a hunched, unnatural-looking shadow that moves along the far side of a river. He follows and it leads him to an old castle. Along the way, the shadow of a labourer that we never glimpse can be seen shoveling dirt in reverse, catching flung clumps of earth on the end of his shovel and returning them to a pile. Once arriving at the castle, shadows become even more irregular – a one-legged soldier sits on a bed and his shadow, previously seen sneaking around the premises, creeps in and rejoins his body. When Gray flees upon seeing the vampire for the first time, his shadow lingers behind, staring for long seconds, before turning and pursuing its owner towards safety.
Silence is also used to great effect in Vampyr. It becomes an empty space in which we are left to worry and wonder without auditory queues to guide us. This is partially a product of the then-recent emergence from silent films, which results in minimal dialog and a light musical score. Dreyer doesn’t stop there, however, and at times employs complete silence to great effect.
Possibly one of the strongest moments of the movie occurs when Allan Grey and Gisele, who lives in a manor near the castle, pursue Gisele’s sleepwalking sister, Leone into the countryside at night. When they spot Leone in the distance, sprawled insensibly on a bench with the vampire hunched over her, the music stops. All motion stops and there is nothing but perfect silence while the two pursuers stand frozen, unsure of what they’re seeing, until the vampire slowly rises and retreats into the forest.
The vampire herself is also a unique choice: female, but old and squat. She moves with slow infirmity, but advances. This small, bent thing that cannot rush towards you, nonetheless approaches, and the effect is unsettling. The monster has no sex appeal, speaks no seductive words, but comes expressionlessly toward you, and you dread what will happen when it arrives. There is no tranquilizing sexuality to reduce the horror of that moment.
It is through the subtle use of these visual and auditory devices that Vampyr works to create a slowly escalating and pervasive sense of dreamlike dread, one that never relents. There are no jump-starts, sudden blasts of noise, or other cheap-scare gimmicks. Instead, the movie slowly builds unease by creating an off-balance world where nothing behaves quite how the viewer expects it too. If you enjoy creepy, atmospheric horror, this is a fantastic specimen. Find yourself a quiet, dark place and watch it.