Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) (1932)

Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) – 1932

Director – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring – Julian West, Maurice Schutz, and Rena Mandel

When I think of a good vampire story, I think of the grotesque, deformed creature typified by Max Schreck in Nosferatu.  I think of Bela Lugosi’s suave and seductive Count Dracula from the aptly named Dracula.  Hell, I even think of Kiefer Sutherland and Alex Winter as the perpetual, rebellious, angst-ridden teenagers in Lost Boys.  One thing I do not think of, despite it’s clever title, is Vampyr the nearly silent horror story from cinema pioneer Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Firstly, Vampyr is a vampire story in the loosest of terms.  There is an evil, in the form of a person, or people, terrorizing a small, eastern european village.  About halfway through the movie, mention is made of a young woman with a wound on her neck who is acting as if possessed.  It is there that the similarities end.

Now despite it not really being true to the vampire angle, the film does have its moments of creepy, skin crawling ingenuity.  Dreyer’s use of subtle editing tricks to make the shadows come alive pack quite a punch both visually, and in the scare department.  Ghostly shadow figures go about their business against walls, reflected in water, and along the ground, while our main character stares in disbelief.  These effects are used so often in fact that it is more accurate to call the film Shadowpyr than Vampyr.  It is unfortunate for the film, however, that this aspect of the story wasn’t explored further than just as creepy visuals.

Earlier I mentioned that this film was nearly silent, this is because when the film was produced it was still the early days of sound and not much was done other than the occasional section of dialogue or stray sound effect.  In a way, this lack of sound really helps the sections of the film dealing with the shadows.  It seems strange and off somewhat that we are unable to hear the shadow with a peg leg ascend the ladder, or the shadowy gravedigger digging a grave.  All the sections not utilizing the lack of sound in this way are left wanting.  The dialogue is rather garbled and mumbly and doesn’t seem to match up with the actor who is supposedly speaking the line.  This is partially because it is in a language I don’t understand, but it also helped along by the fact that there are title cards with the dialogue even though the film has sound.

By and large this was an interesting film.  Some of the visuals were very disturbing and effective, but this seems more like a footnote in cinema history rather than a benchmark.  Good, but not nearly as good as the director’s earlier work, and if you’re interested in that, start with La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.  If you want a good movie about vampires, try Let The Right One In, or one of the films I mentioned earlier.

La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc (AKA: The Passion of Joan of Arc) (1928)

PassionofJoanofArc

La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc (AKA: The Passion of Joan of Arc) – 1928

Director – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring – Maria Falconetti

Quite possibly Carl Theodor Dreyer’s most influential work, The Passion of Joan of Arc owes a lot of it’s notoriety and it’s impact to it’s lead actress, Maria Falconetti.  The fear, and passion thatFalconetti conjures on camera througout the duration of the trial of Joan,  is not merely some plot point to enhance the story, it IS the story.

Staged almost entirely within the courtroom or her jail cell, the story of Joan of Arc is fairly straight forward, so much so that most people know the jist of it even if they don’t know that they know it.  Joan, the famous saint, and girl warrior, is on trial for her alleged heresy (actually she was only officially tried for wearing in-appropriate men’s clothing).  During this trial, everything from her value structure to her manner of dress is drawn into question.  Evidence is forged, and heavy eccliesiatic persuasion is used.  Through it all Joan held to her beliefs, and was eventually sentenced to death.  This is not a spoiler, it’s too well known to have spoiled anything.

From the opening shots of the courtroom, I was immediately struck by how upclose and invasive the camera work seemed to be.  Not invasive of the actors, but of me.  Shot in striking, uncomfortable close-ups, Joan’s accusers seem warped and distended.  Each face (with the exception of Joan’s) takes on a sinister look, frowning, sneering, and conspiring with a simple furrow of the brow.  Joan on the other hand, seems to have a perpetually wet, upturned gaze, similar to a lot of religious paintings.  She is given more room in the frame and as a result, she serves as a respite for us as viewers when she is on screen.

I tried my damnedest to watch it in it’s original silent state, but after catching myself nodding off a bit, I turned on the optional audio track of accompanying music.  Let me tell you…this helps SO much!  The music serves as a balast not only for the dramatic action happening on screen, but for pacing, dramatic effect, and as an additional means of engaging the audience.

One thing I was surprised about when watching this, was the over-all quality of image that this version (the Criterion Collection edition) offered.  I am used to these older films being so grainy and damaged that they seem almost blurry, so it was quite a surpise to find that the print was clear as a bell, with only a few scratches and flaws in the picture quality.  Another final critique, since this story is based on actual documentation of the court proceedings, the reach of the story seemed lacking.  I would have liked to have heard more about Joan’s deeds before her trial, whether or not they were truthful or distortions put forth by her accusers, it would have helped to liven up the story a bit.

By and large, The Passion of Joan of Arc was a pleasant surprise to me.  The image quality in particular, but also the acting, and pacing managed to avoid the trappings (read: length) that many other silent films fall into.  While there were slow moments, the last scene of the rioting villagers being fought off by palace guards was more than enough to smack me across the face.