Vampyr was received upon its release with almost exclusively negative reviews, and though critical opinion has improved over time, it is still usually considered as one of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s (The Passion of Joan of Arc) feebler efforts. There are, however, many critics who consider the film an overlooked masterpiece of the horror genre. I think that the reason for these conflicting views is the fact that Vampyr is hopelessly trapped between genres; it attempted to be a popular movie while being in its substance much closer to an art house or experimental film. Its lack of popular success stemmed from its weak, confusing story-line, abyss-like plot holes, and completely unexplained and unmotivated action. The world of experimental cinema mostly overlooked it because of its aspirations to popularity and attempts to use sound. There is little doubt that Vampyr was a blatant attempt to cater to (or capitalize on) the new popularity of vampire movies and plays, such as the numerous silent horror movie variations on Dracula and the stage version of Stoker’s novel. Dreyer, however, seemed to have been interested in the popular motif as a pretense to experiment extensively with atmosphere, symbolism, mood, editing, and various camera tricks. The plot is so feeble that it barely merits mention, it is enough to say that a young man interested in the supernatural visits a town cursed by a vampire and becomes entangled in the fate of a lord and his two daughters. Dreyer makes no attempt to disguise the fact that his interest lies away from the plot and even the characters (almost all the actors are nonprofessional). The characters are oddly expressionless, wandering around with vague, dream-like expressions in a sort of daze. Where the film is strongest is its mise-en-scène. Dreyer masterfully creates the chilling sensation of something indefinably, yet persistently wrong. The effects are simple and are all the more effective for that. Instead of attempts at extravagant visual effects that would now make us laugh, Dreyer uses uncomplicated techniques that are as powerful as they are original, the most memorable example of which are the shadows that mysteriously separate from their owners and, at one point, join in a shadow dance. Such straightforward and innovative techniques allow the film to stand the test of time and its power remains undiminished by the decades that have elapsed.
The obscure, yet unshakable, sense of the grotesque that pervades the film is due in great part to the subtlety of the effects used. The suggestion of something awful is sometimes much more powerful than the thing itself. Instead of showing the vampire sucking the blood out of her victims (the vampire, in fact, appears only a couple of times), Dreyer focuses on showing the effects of the creature’s presence. Even the way the atmosphere of undefinable horror is conveyed is extremely subtle. While definitely indebted to German Expressionism, especially in its focus on architecture and props, Vampyr is more understated. Dreyer creates the same feeling of unsteadiness and disorientation that is produced by oblique angles without using them, positioning the furniture and doors/windows in a vaguely askew way in relation to one another. Such techniques make it even harder to define where the sense of weirdness and wrongness is coming from than if an oblique angle has been used. Dreyer also often uses ominous symbols that remain unexplained. When Alan Gray (the main character) arrives in the town, he sees an old man carrying a scythe. Not only does Gray keep looking back at the man, the camera keeps following him long after he is out of Gray’s sight. The man is shown from the back or with his face partially concealed, looking enigmatically out into the distance, a faceless figuration of Death. Rooms are shown with the camera panning slowly over the objects on the shelves and tables; bottles, books, skulls. The stark white space that surrounds the objects seems to bring them forward and endow them with a meaning that we never discover. In one of the most remarkable scenes, Gray dreams that he is dead and is being carried to his grave, looking out from the coffin. The ordinary houses he is carried past tower over him with an awful symmetry and solemnity that is mirrored by his unmoving position in the coffin. These kinds of scenes not only do nothing to move the plot forward, they actually completely side-track it, making it evident that Vampyr could not possibly have become a popular success. For a horror movie full of heart-stopping plot twists and bloody encounters with the supernatural, we may have to look elsewhere, but for an unsurpassed sense of creeping eeriness that follows the viewer into the dark, Dreyer’s foray into horror is ideal.
— Anna Shane