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Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 horror masterpiece “Vampyr” (now streaming on HBO Max) begins with a text crawl that describes the protagonist Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg) as “a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural [is] blurred.” It’s a descriptor that applies as much as to Dreyer’s main character as it does to Guillermo del Toro, who believes in monsters the way people believe in religion. Del Toro has long considered “Vampyr” to be one of his favorite films and a pillar of the horror genre, and all it takes is one viewing of Dreyer’s classic to see how it became a driving force behind del Toro’s own filmmaking vision.
“‘Vampyr’ is as close as you get to poetry in film,” del Toro once told Criterion. “It’s truly a meditation on life and death and the beyond. I think it’s a memento mori about death casting a shadow over life…It’s the idea of the vampire as not a physical entity with fangs and a cape but the vampire as a fowl spirit that surrounds and threatens innocence.”
One could sum up the majority of del Toro’s films as stories where “a fowl spirit surrounds and threatens innocence” (it applies in explicit ways to “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Mimic,” and “Crimson Peak”), but it’s the way del Toro shrouds his films in death that make the influence of “Vampyr” so unshakeable. Dreyer’s stroke of genius in “Vampyr” is to make his camera mobile so that most shots feel haunted by death themselves. His camera doesn’t observe evil but comes to feel as if it is possessed by evil itself. As del Toro told Criterion, “The camera is an active participant in the narrative, and therefore the film is deeply cinematic.”
The film begins with Allan arriving at an inn; tension is ignited from the get-go by Dreyer’s precise shot selection and camera movements. Dreyer often places the camera from inside the inn looking at Allan as he inspects the building outside, as if to imply the house has a spirit all its own that is observing Allan separate from the viewer. (It’s a trick del Toro was adamant about using in “Crimson Peak,” where the house is considered a main character.) When Allan gets inside, the camera follows him in one take as he walks through a room and to a stairwell to investigate a strange noise. The slow, almost dreary pacing of the mobile camera adds to Dreyer’s uneasy atmosphere. These movements lack the rush of Kubrick’s Steadicam shots, but they are similar for the way they develop into escalating real-time dread.
Dreyer utilizes camera pans and pushes in most of his “Vampyr” sets to remind the viewer that death exists in a free-flowing space all around the characters. The audience can’t see it, nor can the characters, but its presence is heavy and unpredictable. These are the same camera movements del Toro executes in one of his most famous sequences, the Pale Man from “Pan’s Labyrinth.” The camera follows Ophelia into the dungeon, pans over the Pale Man’s table, scales up and down walls. Like Dryer, del Toro uses his camera to take a contained space and fill it with motion so that it becomes consumed with tension and darkness.
And yet, darkness never prevails in del Toro’s movies. Fueled by his adoration for monsters, del Toro often breaks the tension of his scariest moments through the sheer majesty with which he creates otherworldly beings. Darkness and beauty go hand in hand. No matter how terrifying The Pale Man scene escalates, the sheer opulence of the set design and the jaw-dropping tangibility of the creature’s design lead beauty to cut through the horror. Similar examples are a fixture in del Toro’s filmography, from the lavish costumes and intricate architecture in “Crimson Peak” to the boundless imagination behind the monsters in “Hellboy” and “The Shape of Water.”
Perhaps the best scene in “Vampyr” lays the foundation for del Toro’s dance between darkness and beauty. Allan leaves the inn and is led to an old castle by shadows that appear to wonder on their own. The tension of Allan’s journey explodes with an operatic shot that pans from Allen down a long castle wall where the shadows of unknown people dance with boisterous energy. The dance of shadows is an unnerving sight executed with such awe-inspiring filmmaking by Dreyer that to watch it is to experience terror and joy all in single sweep-you-off-your-feet moment. Such a dance would go on to be the driving force behind del Toro’s filmmaking.
“To me, pure cinema is a medium delivering a message that cannot be delivered in a book or a play or a painting,” del Toro told Criterion. “‘Vampyr’ delivers this message that death is around the corner in purely cinematic terms.” Del Toro’s own filmmaking isn’t quite as bleak, but it sits in the shadow of Dreyer’s towering accomplishment.
“Vampyr” is now streaming on HBO Max.