Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. This January, in celebration of our entrance into the roaring 2020s, we’ll be celebrating black and white horror here at Nightmare on Film Street. Black and white is a format particularly well suited to the horror genre, lending an ethereal effect to storytelling that color film can’t replicate. In honor of Silver Screams month, let’s look at a film that boasts some of the most hauntingly beautiful black and white cinematography in all of horror, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932).
A Journey Into Horror
Vampyr is a strange work of classic horror, in that is has only achieved classic status in the modern era. At its release, it was critically panned and a box office failure. It has gained recognition as a forgotten gem of horror only in recent decades. Watching the film today, it’s understandable why it didn’t land with 1932 audiences. Carl Theodor Dreyer was a Danish director best known for his 1928 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. While the production of that film was rocky, it was celebrated at its release and has since been lauded as one of the greatest films ever made.
Following such a film was always going to be a challenge, especially since despite its critical acclaim, The Passion of Joan of Arc was a box office failure. In fact, the production company with which Dreyer was contracted refused to finance his next project, effectively leaving him unable to work. But Dreyer was never a filmmaker to play by the rules. He successfully sued his producers to be free of his contract, as he got to work on his next project. By now it was the early 1930s and the sound era had dawned on cinema.
“..The vampire story Carmilla served as the very loose basis of the plot, but to say that Vampyr has a plot at all is a stretch.”
While learning about sound film technique in England, Dreyer and his writer friend Christen Jul began diving into every mystery and supernatural horror story they could get their hands on. They decided horror would be the next theme they would tackle on screen, and after gathering together all the most memorable motifs of the genre, they chose vampires as the framing supernatural force at work. Dracula was all the rage after all, with a hit Broadway play and hit universal film under his belt. For plot inspiration, Dreyer turned to Sheridan Le Fanu over Bram Stoker, particularly his 1872 collection of horror stories In a Glass Darkly. The vampire story Carmilla served as the very loose basis of the plot, but to say that Vampyr has a plot at all is a stretch. Instead, it’s the closest to a nightmare that has been ever put on film. With its emphasis on images and mood over conventional story structure, Vampyr is a film that will haunt your dreams — especially because it feels like one.
Once the vision for Vampyr had fallen into place, the question became one of money. After freeing himself of his studio, Dreyer had no financial backer. While location scouting in France, he met Dutch aristocrat Nicolas de Gunzberg, who had an interest in breaking into film. He agreed to fund Vampyr in exchange for the starring role. Dreyer agreed, knowing that acting chops wouldn’t be essential in such a surreal, mood-driven film. Gunzberg chose the acting pseudonym Julian West so as not to offend his noble family, and the production of Vampyr was underway.
Under The Vampire’s Spell
Vampyr follows a young man named Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzberg) whose obsession with the occult and supernatural has compelled him to wander Europe in a dreamlike state. He arrives in the French village of Contempierre, which seems to be under a supernatural influence. That influence is a vampire in the form of an old woman (Henriette Gerard) who is preying upon the daughters (Sybille Schmitz and Rena Mandel) of a local nobleman (Maurice Schultz). The village doctor (Jan Hieronimko) is the mortal serving her in the “Renfield” role. After being recruited to help by the nobleman, Gray finds himself pulled into a surreal struggle between good and evil.
“Despite the strange identity of Vampyr as a halfway silent, halfway sound film, sound design plays a very intentional and crucial role in the film.”
Even though Vampyr was Dreyer’s first sound film, the director wasn’t quite comfortable with the technique. He found silent film better suited for the visual and disorienting mood he had in mind. Furthermore, the film would be released across Europe. Its dialogue would need to be easily adaptable to multiple languages. Dreyer shot the film in a silent style, with decorative title cards to spell out most of the action. The dialogue was minimal and recorded in post-production, mostly by different actors than we see onscreen.
Despite the strange identity of Vampyr as a halfway silent, halfway sound film, sound design plays a very intentional and crucial role in the film. Dreyer chose to feature a constant symphony of disorienting background noise throughout the film, especially during scenes of heightened supernatural activity. Barking dogs, birds, and crying children fill the film. All these sounds were actually created by professional human mimics, giving them an aura of unnerving uncanniness. The dialogue we do hear is disjointed and often intentionally confusing, to further emphasize the film’s dreamlike mood.
Into a Nightmare
But what really elevates Vampyr to a level of surreal horror masterpiece is the visuals. Dreyer crafts a masterful sequence of black and white tableaux that rivals even the black and white dreamscapes of Nosferatu (1922). From the scythe bearing ferryman of the film’s opening to the gothic interiors to the misty, moody landscapes, each frame of Vampyr is a work of fine art. Dreyer drew inspiration from the work of Goya, and the opening sequence has Alan Grey exploring dark medieval artwork on the walls of the small inn he has settled at. Scenes were primarily shot at dawn and with natural lighting, granting everything an ethereal glow — a sense of being between the worlds.
The blurry, washed-out look of the film that would be its visual signature came about as a happy accident. As Dreyer himself recalled “We had begun shooting on the film – starting with the opening scene – and after one of the first screenings of the rushes we noticed that one of the takes was gray. We wondered why, until we realized that a false light had been projected onto the lens. We thought about that take, the producer, Rudolph Mate and I, in relation to the style we were looking for. Finally, we decided that all we had to do was deliberately repeat the accident. So after that, for each take, we arranged a false light by directing a spotlight hung with a black cloth on to the lens.” The soft blur look of the film, combined with the minimal dialogue, enhances the dreamlike quality of Vampyr. With little logic to ground the viewer, we are left with only a collection of vividly haunting scenes, somehow all the more terrifying for their illogic.
In one sequence, Alan Gray follows a mysterious, peg-legged figure to a crumbling building. There he finds mysterious shadows that move independently of their owners or without a source at all. This effect is memorably referenced by Francis Ford Coppola in Bram Stoker’s Dracula(1992). The effect is shockingly believable and all the more mind-blowing that it was achieved in 1932! Vampyr absorbs the viewer do completely on its surreal reality, you accept the magic of it all without even asking “how did they do that???”
Another iconic scene features a moment in which Alan Gray dreams of his own burial. The sequence is mostly shot from the point of view of inside the coffin. It’s both terrifying and oddly beautiful, an apt summation of the strange magic of Vampyr. It’s a film that enchants in one moment and disturbs in the next, never offering the viewer solid ground to stand on.
If the strength of black and white horror is its ability to more accurately channel the nightmare realm, then Vampyr is a shining example of this. While it was derided upon its initial release for its own inaccessibility, it has since been revived as an underappreciated masterpiece. Many horror films before and since have attempted to replicate a dreamlike state. I would argue few have succeeded as Vampyr did. Its surreal power is its strength, as well as its barrier to entry. But I would encourage any fan of surreal horror to give Vampyr a watch. The Criterion Collection has made a gorgeous, restored print of the German language version available on Blu-Ray and the Criterion Channel. So settle in with the black and white beauty of Dreyer’s imagining. It’s a unique vision of the potential of black and white film to conjure a nightmare like no other.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams! Share your thoughts on Vampyr with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!