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An old Gothic cathedral, built over a mass grave, develops strange powers which trap a number of people inside with ghosts from a 12th Century massacre seeking to resurrect an ancient demon from the bowels of the Earth.
Feodor Chaliapin Jr.
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Young traveller Allan Grey arrives in a remote castle and starts seeing weird, inexplicable sights (a man whose shadow has a life of its own, a mysterious scythe-bearing figure tolling a bell, a terrifying dream of his own burial). Things come to a head when one of the daughters of the lord of the castle succumbs to anaemia - or is it something more sinister? Written by
Michael Brooke <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Along with THE SHINING and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the greatest horror movie ever made - shudder.
A conventionally Gothic vampire movie? A Surrealist dreamscape? A Borgesian labyrinth? A study of identity and its dissolution? A Christian parable about innocence and evil? A dramatisation of the mind? Too many horror films are unworthy of the name. They may have genuine scares and surprises, but their horrors are comfortingly contained in genre, in a recognisable place, with recognisable characters - the source of the horror is either crushed or resuscitated for the sequel, and if you actually await the return of a horror, it's not very horrible (honorable exceptions include THE SHINING, REPULSION).
If you were to use one word to describe the director of DAY OF WRATH and ORDET, it would not be generic. And yet many of his admirers are slighttly embarrassed that he followed his shattering, spiritual masterpiece THE PASSION OF JEANNE D'ARC with a Victorian potboiler. The ingrediants are depressingly familiar to anyone who's seen even half a dozen horror films - a Westernised foreigner (played by the film's aristocratic financier; this is not it's only point in common with Cocteau's THE BLOOD OF A POET) with an interest in the supernatural visits Eastern Europe; he stays in a decaying mansion-turned-inn where mysterious events occur, involving girls in trances, vampires and mad doctors.
The problem with most horror films is that they are too neat - their forms do not embody a content filled with decay, dismemberment, sensation, confusion, ambiguity, inexplicability. Anyone in love with Dreyer's formal purity will be shocked by how 'messy' VAMYPYR seems. Much of this may be the fault of the poor print I saw - a bleached frame that makes the credits illegible (although Mate's filtered blinding lighting is one of the sources of the film's unease); disjointed editing that suggests an ornery distributor's hand; the feel that this print is actually an assemblage of different prints - German language scenes alternate with dubbed English ones, the music seems to halt with jarring regularity.
Normally this kind of vandalism is simply unacceptable to any work by a master, but somehow this butchery adds to the film's enigma. The film IS a Surrealist dreamscape - the mansion has no social reality, it is a rarefied space through which wander dreamlike characters. The images frequently have no narrative basis, but together create a chilling oneiric atmosphere - the bellringer with the scythe; the repeated motif of active shades; the waltz of the shadows, one of the most remarkable, unaccountable scenes in all cinema.
The film is also a labyrinth on many levels. Its hero is not one in the active, heroic sense - he wanders as if 'impelled', he is always looking on, or too late, and when he finally tries to act he succumbs to possible evil, the blood seeped out of him, his wholeness divided, until he finally watches from his own funeral. He spends most of the film walking, through corridors, stairs, doorways, out in the sheds and meadows, always framed, minimised, going nowhere, as in a maze, right back to where he started from.
The gliding camerawork, complex and astonishing still today, unthinkable in the stagy, clumpy early days of sound cinema, makes the fixed house, decor, genre seem fluid, unstable, alive. The film's structure is labyrinthine too
narrative traits begin and are quickly dropped, or simply don't make
sense, becoming non-sequiters. The 'reality' of the film is thoroughly undermined - we have difficulty separating the real and the imagined/dreamed, the innocent and the guilty. Plot, linear, frequently evaporates into unconnected imagery, circular, a series of motifs. The film itself, Dreyer's first sound film, features little dialogue, and is in many ways shot like a silent, with intertitles, stylised acting, and flickering, chiaroscuro imagery, further making ambiguous the status of what we see, the music and sound effects being vital.
Unlike most horror films, VAMPYRE does not move towards explanation of mystery and resolution of rupture. On the contrary, it is increasingly baffling, and if the big house in horror movies is often a signifier for the mind, then what we are watching is surely a visualisaiton of madness and breakdown. And yet the vampire plot itself seems to suggest peace and redemption to at least one of the sufferers. Whatever the meaning(s) of this quite extraordinary and beautiful film, you can bet the le Fanu novel isn't a patch on it.
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