How to describe Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr: It's the cinematic equivalent of wandering alone in a graveyard at midnight. Allan Grey, a supernatural afficionado, stumbles on an eerie Inn in the Scandanavian countryside. It's there a vampire is feeding on the blood of children and enslaving townfolk to do his dark bidding. One such slave is the town quack -- an Einstein-looking, blood-lusting angel of death, forcing transfusions and treating ailing vamp-victim Leone with the dreaded vile marked with skull and crossbones. Dreyer was a visual genius, and he creates a universe of such chilling lucidity and atmosphere you might get dizzy mid-viewing. His camera lurches down dark corridors, scaling a wall of waltzing, shadowy ghosts locking the viewer in a maze of disorienting motion and menace. Shadows are now spiritual beacons bouncing around the flower-checkered walls and off of ghoulish, foggy ponds with no discernable tie to the figures that, we assume, originated them. They become perplexing, silhouetted characters all their own. Then actors get so under-exposed we can't tell the difference anymore. It's a nightmarish out-of-body-experience.
Made in 1931, Vampyr is a melange of sound and silence. Aural bites are sparse but they rattle and shake the Inn walls, perfectly timed and effectively reserved: the cries of children, maniacal laughter, a knock on the door from an unwelcome visitor, the rare and mysterious line of dialogue. "She must not die!" says Allan Grey's midnight guest before he scribbles a message on a strange package: TO BE OPENED AFTER MY DEATH. (I bet you can guess what happens next.)
There's an unsettling sense of know-how about Dreyer's demented vision. He has mastered what scares us: In a hallucinatory dream state, our hero wanders into a cottage and watches as he is buried alive. We are immediately placed in the body's subjectivity as the coffin lid comes down over the camera. A small glass window, conveniently placed over the victim's face, allows us to watch, from our backs, as twisted tree limbs and cloudy skies pass overhead. Heaven, or perhaps hell, smiles back, as the damned are carted off. The looming storm clouds and specks of sun constantly do battle over Dreyer's hellish country Inn (the first Overlook Hotel, Bates Motel, or even Hostel), where he stages his seminal horror masterpiece.