Vampyr is a nearly-silent German film from 1932; director Carl Theodor Dreyer was mostly used to working with silent movies, and while there is a smattering of dialogue (in German, though both subtitled and dubbed versions are available in English), much of the story is told in silent movie fashion, with title cards providing occasional dumps of exposition.
The film has come to be viewed as a classic monster movie, having a 100% among critics rating on RottenTomatoes.com, and it has been released as part of the Criterion Collection of films on DVD. It is not as well known as the 1922 classic Nosferatu (and in my opinion, it’s an inferior film as far as the narrative goes), nor of course the Bela Lugosi classic Dracula, but in some ways it forms the third part of a triumvirate of what forms the modern vampire. (I haven’t seen Dracula in full yet, but I’ve seen bits and pieces, and of course it’s become a staple of pop culture references.)
Dracula has the vampire as aristocratic fiend, Nosferatu has the vampire as feral beast, and Vampyr has the vampire as supernatural curse. Each contributes something to the “lore” of movie vampires, such as transforming into a bat, being vulnerable to sunlight, and commanding lesser evil spirits, respectively. (Of course, describing these three films as the ancestors of modern movie vampires naturally raises the question of where the blame lies for the modern spate of vampire romances. Sadly, it’s probably with Bela, who made the Count fairly charming, if sinister. In Vampyr we see the effects of the vampire more than the vampire herself, and as for Nosferatu, well… there are a lot of words to describe Orlok, but charming isn’t on the list.)
Orlok wouldn’t sparkle if you dumped a whole bottle of glitter on him.
Vampyr focuses on traveling journalist Allan Gray, who while visiting a small village notices some seriously strange goings-on. Some of the villagers are deformed. There are strange noises that other people won’t acknowledge. Strangest of all, peoples’ shadows don’t always stay in sync with their bodies, and sometimes even go off wandering on their own.
Allan watches everything with wide-eyed terror. Literally, everything. I think his face got stuck this way.
He is contacted by an old man, the lord of a local manor, who leaves him a package to be opened in the event of his death. Said death happens fairly soon, with the old man murdered at his manor right as Allan comes visiting. The old man leaves behind two daughters, quiet Giselle and sickly Leoné, who is gradually revealed to have been bitten by a vampire, and is slowly succumbing to vampiric transformation herself. Allan opens the package and find that it contains a book about vampires, detailing (and boy, does it detail) what they are, what their effects on their victims is, and what can be done about it. Why the old man left this to Allan only after his death instead of just coming out and saying “Hey, could you help out here?” is never explained.
Vampyr is critically respected, and it deserves a spot in monster movie history for some of the lore that it establishes. But will a modern viewer enjoy it? Sadly, there’s not much here for the modern-day film fan. The sleepy pace the film takes for the first two thirds can be a bit off-putting, and the dream-like qualities of the last third (particularly the actual dream sequence), while very well done, contribute to making a hither-to straightforward plot a little confusing. I have to say that this one is for diehards only, people who want to be strongly versed in old-school vampire movies. For the rest, Vampyr is one of those films where if you know it exists, you probably know all you need to.