David Gray (Julian West) is taking a holiday to a quiet French village but if he hopes to steady his nerves he has another thing coming. He arrives at the inn where he will be staying and is eventually directed to his room, but the ambience of the place fills him with dread for reasons he can't quite pin down. When he retires to go to sleep, he is disturbed to notice the door handle turn, and the door he thought he had locked open, whereupon a man enters and mutters something about having to save "her". David doesn't understand, but the man leaves him a package on which he has written that it should not be opened until after his death, and exits the room. Now David has been plunged into a nightmare from which there seems to be no escape...
Fashioning it's own atmosphere of unease on a tiny budget, Vampyr was director Carl Theodor Dreyer's unlikely follow up to La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc and his first sound film. Co-written with Christian Jul, it was supposedly based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu's classic vampire story Carmilla, but in truth it could best be described as inspired by it without actually sticking closely to the text as the plotting isn't the strong point with this effort. There is a female vampire draining the life out of a young woman, but that's about it and she's barely on screen. Julian West was in real life Baron Nicolas de Gunsberg, also the producer, and the film was made in France in four languages for a more international appeal.
Unfortunately, the film was not much of a hit, but did win out as an early cult movie among those whose idea of horror was more dreamlike than many of the efforts coming out of Hollywood. And dreamlike is what this film is, a surreal collection of eerie scenes that culminate in the overpowering evil being vanquished by the forces of good - or, as is implied, the forces of God, although there's no equivalent of Bela Lugosi shrinking back from a brandished cross. After being told by the man in his room that he is his daughter's only hope, David starts investigating, and a succession of bizarre images appear, most notably the shadows and silhouettes, such as a gravedigger digging backwards, or the shadow of a one-legged soldier moving with a life of its own.
The most famous sequence features David (or is he called Allan? There appears to be a discrepancy in the versions) feeling nauseous after a blood transfusion taken from him by the sinister doctor and resting on a bench. There his alter ego gets up, leaving his body behind, to see that he is being buried in a coffin with a glass window. Simultaneously he sees this from outside and inside the coffin, a terrific display of disquiet in a film full of such instances. Vampyr is largely seen in scratchy, worn prints nowadays, and the soundtrack, which was never the clearest in the first place, is usually in just as bad shape, which ironically adds to its feel of not only a haunting work, but a haunted one as well, as if the figures we see are ghosts carrying out acts of the long dead. The message would be to have your faith in God and he will deliver you from evil, but what stays with you are the visions of those twisted forces that we are given glimpses of here.