The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Duchess
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Vampyr (1932)
1.19:1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital Mono
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Before becoming a director (of the noir classic D.O.A., among other notable films), cinematographer Rudolph Maté built up a résumé that would be the envy of any cinematographer. A collaborator on seminal films by William Wyler, Ernst Lubitsch and Alfred Hitchcock, among others, Maté was both a versatile Hollywood craftsman and a visual artist of the highest order. It’s no small praise, therefore, to single out his collaboration with Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer on Vampyr as perhaps his greatest achievement.

The story is standard horror fare: Allan Gray (or David Grey, depending on which version of the film one is watching), a student obsessed with the occult, arrives at a mysterious inn. Before long he meets some of the eccentric locals and discovers that there is an aging vampire in the area preying on young women, yet it’s unclear whether the danger is real or just a figment of Gray’s overactive imagination. Through unorthodox visual strategies and an evocative soundtrack, Dreyer blurs the line between reality and hallucination in a manner similar to the way Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street did more than 50 years later and, in the process, transcends the more generic elements of his plot.

In some ways, Vampyr fits in perfectly with Dreyer’s usual thematic concerns as a director obsessed with the human soul and its varying degrees of strength and fragility. Yet Vampyr differs considerably from Dreyer and Maté’s previous collaboration, the classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (also available in an exemplary Criterion edition). Whereas that film is a landmark of cinematic purity and simplicity — stripping each image down to its bare essentials for maximum emotional impact — Vampyr is a cluttered, ornate film in which expressionistic lighting and layered production design generate a densely packed frame.

Yet for all the accumulation of visual detail, Vampyr’s purpose is to confuse and provoke rather than to clarify; its precise manipulation of mise-en-scène and sound is intended to generate a consistently increasing feeling of unease in the audience, and Dreyer and Maté’s careful methodology pioneered effects that would be elaborated upon in later horror milestones such as Halloween and The Shining. The manipulation of point of view is particularly interesting, as the filmmakers often indicate that something is being seen from Gray’s perspective, only to reveal Gray a moment later in a place that completely contradicts the implications of the initial framing. Maté further puts the audience on edge with eerie tracking camera movements that serve no dramatic or thematic purpose, and the end result is a horror film that comes close to re-creating the experience of having an actual nightmare.

Although the print material has some scratches and other imperfections (the original negative no longer exists), Criterion’s transfer is up to its usual high standards in terms of tone and clarity. Two nearly identical versions of the film are included on the disc: the original German release with English subtitles, and a version with English text replacing the German in the many scenes where Dreyer uses written materials on screen. Both editions blow away every earlier video release, including the early DVD put out by Image. Flaws in the source material aside, the subtle tonal range of Maté’s black-and-white cinematography is beautifully preserved, and the pristine soundtrack allows the viewer to fully appreciate the film’s surreal aural design. The Vampyr DVD continues Criterion’s tradition of releasing Dreyer masterworks in the best possible presentation.

It also contains several outstanding supplements spread out over two discs. First is a commentary track by scholar Tony Rayns, who contextualizes Vampyr within Dreyer’s career and offers an enlightening look at the film’s use of subjective camera movement and lighting. Disc two provides further insight into the director’s style via a visual essay by Dreyer expert Casper Tybjerg, who presents clips from Vampyr as well as images from painting, photography and the cinema that influenced its creation. Dreyer’s own perspective on his art can be found in a 23-minute radio lecture on filmmaking from 1958, as well as in a terrific half-hour documentary on his work that was produced in 1966.

The disc also comes with the standard Criterion booklet of critical writings and interviews in addition to a nifty bonus: Writing Vampyr, a 214-page book that contains the original screenplay and the story upon which it was based. Taken together, these supplements offer a thorough understanding of one of the three great vampire movies of its era (along with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula), and stand as a testament to Vampyr’s unyielding ability to disturb and provoke — its greatness is as immortal as its title character.

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