Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: “Vampyr”

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It’s finally October, which will allow me to focus on many genres of film, right? Well, maybe not.

For this month on Christian’s Cinematic Syntax, I will be exploring the horror film and its sub-genres to demonstrate their inner complexities — those of atmosphere, as well as the many different underlying factors that make a horror film truly horrific. In order to do so, it is necessary to establish my thoughts on horror films from different decades and review them. It is also important to say, I will have no pattern to the films I choose. It will be heavily influenced by memory, and films that I am reminded of for spontaneous reasons. And since the Criterion Collection recently upgraded the film Vampyr to Blu-Ray on October 3, it was an obvious first choice.

Vampyr is a film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and was originally released in 1932. At its release, it was barraged with backlash, so much so that it even caused the director to have a nervous breakdown. But as the film moved on through the ages, it emerged as a classic of the time period.

*Spoilers ahead*  

The film follows an enthusiast of the Black Arts, Alan Grey (Nicolas de Gunzburg), who stumbles upon the village of Courtempierre. He is allowed to rent a room at the local inn, in which he first views a dark figure wielding a scythe. This figure is surrounded by fog and is meant to establish the setting and tone, through the legend of the grim reaper. This image also attempts to foreshadow the future discoveries that our character will lead us through (of death).

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The character and the audience: Alan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg) is not only a character we follow. Throughout the film, we are paired to his experience. We are connected to the character with a mental tie, having a dream-like atmosphere due to the character’s feeling displayed. This dream-like atmosphere is furthered with the constant emphasis on shadows in the film. The film is in our realm, although it is in a hot-bed for spirituality. We are bombarded with shadows, displaying the specialty of our character  and his connection with the Dark Arts. It also shows that our character is aware of the odd occurrences in the village, which leads to the vampire’s downfall.  

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The character’s connection can be exemplified through the image presented. His experience of spirituality, within his mind, gives us a reason to trust our character. This scene (shown to the left) is the most horrific in the film, due to our main character actually being forced to experience his own death through an outside lens. The director, choosing a high angle, elevates the scene and creates the illusion that our character is looking down at his lifeless self.      

The Cinematography: With a wide array of shots and angles (POV, pans, close-ups, dutch, eye-level, etc.), the film creates an atmosphere that is similar to that of a fever dream. The film is in black and white, and while it isn’t a silent film, it features little actual dialogue. The camera seems to constantly either wander or follow the main character to accomplish its dream-like feelings. The use of the dutch-angle is also incorporated for distress purposes. We see this when the owner of the manor (Maurice Schutz) is murdered, dropping a candle in the process. We also see an oblique close-up of a shadow holding a firearm (which is what is shown to have murdered the Lord of the Manor). The film is riddled with close-ups to add a sense of importance to the items or actions (for multiple purposes).

The film also chooses to give background information on the concept of a vampire through close-ups of title cards. These title-cards act as a way to show a character reading a book, and is a perfect display of transition from the silent era. Through these examples, it is clear that cinematography is an essential element in developing the “horror” in film in general.  

Mise-en-scène: The purpose of placement is a primary element in this film, with the auteur controlling heavily. We are exposed to the motif of death immediately with the grim reaper, and we continue this mise-en-scène by having strategically placed items with skeletons incorporated. Examples of these are the poison (bearing the icon of a skull and crossbones) and the actual skeleton in the doctor’s office. The lighting seems to be primarily accomplished through candlelight in order to produce an organic, low-key feel. This helps to create the large amount of shadows that constantly appear in the film (seriously, this film is filled to the brim with shadows). The composition of the film is controlled, each character has intended purposes, and each shadow has a specific placement as an attempt to leave the composition unbalanced, although there are specific examples of symmetry.  

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Conclusion: This film has an undeniable feeling of unease to it, placing it in the category of horror films that feel manipulated and cursed, and is an essential watch for horror fans.

4.5 out of 5

Editor’s Note: Being that Vampyr is in the public domain, we’ve inserted the film in its entirety via YouTube below.

— Christian Mietus, Film Blogger

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