August 3, 2008

‘Vampyr’ DVD One For The Ages

By Susan Dunne, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

Aug. 3--Disembodied shadows dance on a wall. Invisible assailants attack a man. Barks are heard, but there are no dogs. A vampire, and the vampire's assistant, lurk in the shadows.

Carl Theodor Dreyer's legendary "Vampyr" could be the closest any movie has come to approximating a real nightmare. Vague, disconnected occurrences, causes without effects and effects without causes float by in a fog, with frightened voices coming from some distant, echo-y realm beyond anyone's grasp. Logic is abandoned, and fear takes over, because we don't understand what is happening, but we do know it's evil.

The Criterion Collection last month released a restoration of the Danish auteur's 1932 symphony of unease. It was previously released on DVD by Image Entertainment in 1998, but in an unsatisfying package featuring muddy visuals and unreadable subtitles. This seemed, for 10 years, a sad fate for an underappreciated masterpiece that deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of film-lovers.

Criterion's "Vampyr" package is wonderful. It features a new high-def digital transfer with improved subtitle translation; an alternate version with English text; an audio commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns; a short documentary from 1966, "Carl Th. Dreyer"; a visual essay on Dreyer's influences creating the film; a radio broadcast of Dreyer discussing filmmaking; essays by critics Mark LeFanu and Kim Newman; an interview with the film's financier and star, Nicolas de Gunzburg; and a book featuring the screenplay (by Dreyer and Christen Jul) and Sheridan Le Fanu's novella "Carmilla," on which the story is loosely based.

The high-def transfer is so vastly superior to the 1998 disc that it can be said that anyone who has only seen that DVD has never really seen "Vampyr." Faces and backgrounds jump out with startling clarity, and the subtitles are flawless. Rayns' commentary is lively and informative, as are the essays. A standout feature is the print interview with de Gunzburg, a charming bon vivant who wound up as a fashion magazine editor in New York.

The inclusion of "Carmilla" is interesting primarily in that Dreyer used almost none of it, except the setting in an isolated manor house. It's a terrific read.

In his sole attempt at horror, Dreyer dispensed with narrative logic. The story begins when Mr. Gray shows up at the manor house. Where he comes from is never explained. He just appears and creepy things start happening.

Or maybe they were happening all along, and Gray is merely the latest witness to timeless terrors.

The man of the house begs for his help, gives him a package and then vanishes. Gray goes wandering the grounds, and finds flustered servants, one sick girl and another frightened one, and a doctor who visits only at night. In the package is a book about vampires. Gray wants to help, but isn't sure how, because he isn't sure what's going on.

The spatial and rational disorientation Dreyer elicits is fantastically unnerving. A viewer must keep reminding himself that he is awake.

Dreyer played with the conventional expectation of darkness in a horror film by setting his evil doings against a backdrop of murky grayish- white. Even a climactic death is overwhelmed by white.

Except for one vague patch, no blood is seen. The fear is induced by suggestion and atmosphere.

The cast is primarily non-actors. The only two pros are Maurice Schutz, who worked with Dreyer on the classic "The Passion of Joan of Arc," and the doomed German actress Sybille Schmitz, whose late-life story is the basis for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's tragedy "Veronika Voss."

But the non-actors fill out their roles well. Especially effective is Jan Hieronimko as a creepy doctor, and Henriette Gerard as a domineering old woman who prowls the grounds of the estate.

"Vampyr" was a favorite of suspense master Alfred Hitchcock and film surrealist Luis Bunuel, and is also loved by contemporary cinema fantasist Guillermo del Toro.

It's time for the public to see, really see, what the adulation is all about.

Contact Susan Dunne at [email protected]


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