Nothing like vintage vampire movies. This one is known for thick atmosphere, and thin plot. Inhabiting the requisite village are Maurice Schutz (The Lord of the Manor, or innkeeper), the sisters Gisele and Leone (Rena Mandel and Sybille Schmitz), Henriette Gerard (the old woman from the cemetery–vampire possibly?), Jan Hieronimko (the doctor), Albert Bras as an old servant, Georges Boldin as a guy who limps, and a nurse, Jane Mora. Often the key character in a vampire movie is an outsider, here Allan Gray (Julian West).
Allan finds the village inn, watching a very old guy with a long scythe board a ferry to cross the local river. The innkeeper comes into Allan’s room speaking of a girl that needn’t die; also he leaves a package “to be opened upon my death.” Allan walks out by the river, looks into a dilapidated house where a silhouetted figure passes along the walls. Also silhouettes of dancing couples and musicians.
The Cemetery Woman is here and there, giving orders, skulking about. Alan asks the doctor about “the child.” He doesn’t know anything about her, but helps the old woman putter around. They handle a bottle of poison.
Having seen enough, soon Allan’s back to the inn. There Leone, attended by a nurse, lies in bed, waiting for the doctor. The innkeeper is shot; we only see the shadow of a gun in a doorway. Their servant looks on. Gisele realizes that her father is dead; her mother comforts her. They want Allan to hang around. Someone goes to fetch the police.
Since the guy’s died, Allan opens the mysterious package: it’s a book about vampires. They see Leone wandering around outside; they find her apparently lifeless, as the Cemetery Woman drifts away. Leone’s carried back to the house, and revives. “If only I could die” she says. Then, with a spooky leer, she seemingly gets blood lust. Her sister is so creeped out she leaves the room. Then the carriage returns, but the driver’s dead.
The doctor shows up. “She needs blood” he figures, wanting Alan to donate. But, from Leone’s room, a weird voice intones, “Come… follow me. We shall become one soul, one blood.” It has to be the doctor. As Allan sleeps, a skeletal figure appears holding the bottle of poison. The old servant wakes Allan, saying something terrible is happening. Yeah, it’s the doctor who’s terrible. Allan shoves him aside. But then, Allan, sitting on a bench outside, seems to leave his body; now he’s semi-transparent. In fact, he sees himself in a coffin.
Then we see Leone in a coffin as well. The Cemetery Woman and the doctor are presiding over all this. The creepiest thing is that both coffins have a viewing window over the corpse’s face; first we look down at the bodies, then upward from Alan’s perspective inside the coffin. Both coffins are hustled out to the graveyard. Somehow, Alan has ‘recovered’ his ‘real’ body on the bench and helps the servant uncover the Cemetery Woman’s coffin. She stabbed through the heart with a long pole, turns into a skeleton–a dead vampire.
Meanwhile, the doctor sees a montage of freaky images in the door window (faces, ravens, lightning), and finds himself buried alive by grain churned over him in the mill. Crossing the river on the ferry, Leone and Alan escape.
Wow. This was so atmospheric that it seemed right out of a nightmare, a centuries-old nightmare at that. There’s hardly one thing that’s not mysterious, creepy, shadowy, cadaverous, or hallucinatory. If there were ever vampires, this is where and how they existed. The mythic reference to the crossing of the river Styx is excellent (very much an Ingmar Bergman look), the superb use of detail–the weathervane, the scythe, the mill’s machinery–is haunting, the doctor looks like the one in Dr. Caligari, the out-of-body scenes are fascinating, the characters are either frightened or frightening.
Having said all that, though, Vampyr was very difficult to follow. Only about half of the characters are known by their names. The awkward exposition, in which only some of the dialogue is given in subtitles, and very little is described, gives only the vaguest sense of the plot and characters. That’s not helped by the intrusive references to the book on vampires, which just takes up time. The exposition at the beginning was helpful, but from then on we we’re on our own until near the end, when the actual story gets some mention. By that time it’s old news.
Still, Vampyr is an essential facet of the vampire genre in film. It’s worthwhile to pay close attention to the introductory text; you can pretty much ignore the vampire book stuff. Farmermouse thought everything here was too scary, even the title, so he’ll give it seven river barges to get the heck out. 7/10.