Often derided as "dull," especially by contemporary audiences, Carl Theodor Dreyer's VAMPYR marks a surrealist, European response to the American-style sound horror film kicked off by Universal Studios' DRACULA. In fact, Dreyer reportedly watched Browning's film and conjured up VAMPYR as his own attempt to create something equally marketable. Yet his vision takes us into landscapes beyond the gothic walls of Browning's film, something in which occult influences threaten to break down the very structure of reality itself. Professing to draw from Sheridan Le Fanu's seminal vampire text, CARMILLA, VAMPYR actually bears little resemblance to its source, replacing the youthful, voluptuous vampire with something more akin to the "crone" of witchcraft lore.
Possessing very little in the way of a conventional narrative, the story follows David Gray, a student of the occult, who comes upon a small village plagued by the elderly vampire and her servant, a physician who instead of properly treating his patients, actually helps the vampire feed upon them. Hardly a traditional hero, Gray seems almost helpless as shadows move of their own volition, and in the most visually eerie moment of the film, he falls asleep during a crucial point and as a shadow/ghost, his gazes upon his own corpse as it is prepared for burial.
Dreyer's artistic sensibility brings the film to life, emphasizing image over narrative, and in at least this regard, he lays the groundwork for the European horror film for decades to come, as evident whenever we hear charges that European horror directors emphasize "style over substance." While relatively tame in terms of sexuality, hints of perversion bubble beneath the surface of the film, and we even see one of the vampire's victims bound up in a way that calls to mind some of the later, kinkier images of Jess Franco.
Perhaps VAMPYR does move a bit languidly, but I still find it a fascinating experience, one that culminates in one of the more disturbing moments in 1930s horror, as we see the vampire's servant meet his end in a scene that seems unnaturally drawn out. Definitely worth one's time, though avoid late night viewings when you're prone to falling asleep--you may have disturbing dreams.