With Vampyr, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer channeled his genius for creating mesmerizing atmosphere and austere, unsettling imagery into the horror genre. The result—a chilling film about a student of the occult who encounters supernatural haunts and local evildoers in a village outside Paris—is nearly unclassifiable. A host of stunning camera and editing tricks and densely layered sounds creates a mood of dreamlike terror. With its roiling fogs, ominous scythes, and foreboding echoes, Vampyr is one of cinema’s greatest nightmares.
The German version of Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr receives a Blu-ray upgrade from the Criterion Collection, who yet again present the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1. Criterion is reusing the same high-definition master they used for their original DVD edition from nine years ago, though present it here in full high-definition with 1080p/24hz encode. The high-def scan comes from a 35mm fine-grain master positive restored by Cineteca di Bologna.
The upgrade is noticeable but not as significant as I probably hoped. The source materials still limit the image in a variety of ways and I don’t believe any—or at least much—further restoration has been done since the original release, so the improvements between this and an upscaled image of the DVD aren’t in-your-face obvious at first. The materials are still in rough shape, with several scratches, tram lines, bits of dirt, frame shifts, stray hairs, missing frames, pulses and fluctuations, and more littering the image regularly throughout. The damage is quite heavy, to the point where, in all fairness, it probably would have been more detrimental to the image to do any further digital restoration.
Yet there is still the noticeable improvement in resolution here. Despite the now obvious limitations of the format Criterion’s DVD still holds up surprisingly well, all things considered. The level of detail on that disc is extraordinary when you come down to it and revisiting that release all these years later I was probably more impressed with it now than I was when it was originally released. Still, the Blu-ray manages to deliver a more filmic texture, though not without limitations. Film grain does look better here in comparison to the DVD but it can still come off a bit too coarse and maybe a wee-bit unnatural in places. It’s possible that a newer scan could have improved this area. Otherwise the image overall delivers a staggering amount of detail within the scenes, close-ups looking particularly good (the wild hair of the film’s villain is clearly defined to the point where you can make out individual strands). I also must say that the bits of dirt and debris that rain through also look sharper with the added resolution. Contrast and gray levels look decent, while black levels can fluctuate due to the varying quality of the materials used: sometimes they’re fairly deep with a nice balance so that details can still be seen, while at other times they can be either too deep, killing shadow detail, or more on the grayer side, the latter issue probably having more to do with fading of the print.
Despite all of the problems still present I think the film still comes off looking pretty good on this new Blu-ray. It’s possible a whole new (costly, I’m sure) scan and restoration could have improved things further but this release does offer a noticeable if not astounding improvement over the DVD.
Though the audio does get an upgrade with a lossless PCM 1.0 mono presentation it doesn’t sound like further restoration has been done and the same issues present on the DVD are still there, though all of the issues appear to be related to the source. Both music and voices can sound distorted and flat, but at the very least neither come off overly edgy or harsh. There is also an obvious background hiss but damage is pretty much limited to that. It ultimately is what it is.
Criterion thankfully ports over everything from their original first-printing DVD edition (later printings dropped one significant feature). First off Criterion again presents two versions of the film. The main presentation is the German version, containing German text with English subtitles. Criterion has also included a version they simply call the “English-Text Version.” One of the problems with the German version is at times it can be hard to read the subtitles displayed over sequences with written text, including the sequences featuring text from a book on vampires that is shown often throughout the film. Criterion has digitally inserted English text over the German text sequences, even altering the text that is shown in this book. I’m sure this will be viewed as a sort of blasphemy but you are at least given the option to view wither version, and in all fairness this digital tinkering is very impressive. It manages to look very natural and organic to the film, and is even presented in a similar manner to the German version with the same print flaws, frame shifts, and a similar fuzzy look along with the same font, and this goes for both the on-screen text and the text from the book. So if you do have trouble reading the subtitles for the German version, which can get lost and be hard to read when they are laid over the text within the film, this isn’t a bad alternative since the work is about flawless. The only issue, and it’s a curious one, is that the audio for this version is presented in Dolby Digital mono (it’s not presented through seamless branching, which I thought would have been the route they would go). I couldn’t detect a difference but audiophiles may want to take note. Also, this English version only translates the on-screen text, dialogue is still in German with English subtitles.
The audio commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns recorded for the original DVD also makes its way over. I rather enjoyed this track, which flowed rather naturally (though I’m sure he has his notes with him.) He begins with the film’s rather bad reception, released after sitting on a shelf for a few months, and then gets into the production of the film itself, Dreyer interested in making a more commercial genre film. He does get into the technical aspects of the film, such as the editing and camera work, as well as the use of sound (including working with minimal dialogue), and then even offering a decent analysis of the film itself. There is mention of the German censors and what was cut out, specifically the more graphic details during two key sequences near the end (which I won’t spoil). Rayns mentions that these sequences, still in the French version of the film, will either be put back into the film or included as a supplement elsewhere on the release. These sequences have not been edited back into the film but have been placed in another supplement. In all, despite Rayn being unsure of how to pronounce some names (though I’m sure I wouldn’t do much better) and his unwillingness to suggest that there is some humour in the film, as if that would somehow depreciate the film on some level, it’s very informative covering many aspects of the film within its 73-minute running time.
The remaining supplements are found under the “Supplements” menu, starting with a short 30-minute documentary from 1966 called Carl Th. Dreyer. It begins with footage from the French premiere of Gertrud, where Clouzot, Godard, and Truffaut (among others) are present. The documentary then moves on to an interview with Dreyer who goes over some of his filmography, briefly talking about them. Unfortunately the discussion for each film is rather brief (Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr running only slightly longer) and the clips can run longer than Dreyer’s comments, but I still found this a worthwhile supplement to go through just for his comments.
The next supplement on the disc is a Visual Essay by Casper Tybjerg. Made up of photographs, film stills and clips (that includes an interview segment from the previous supplement) it gives an in-depth look at the making of the film, from its inception (including pictures from location scouts) to its release (including the re-edits that followed.) At times it is a little dry thanks to Tybjerg’s voice, but overall it’s a great sort of “making-of” on the film. The most interesting part, for me, had to do with the film’s “deleted scenes” most of which only exist in stills (like one that was used for the cover art of this DVD release.) There’s also the mention of an alternate ending. This is also where you will find those scenes censored from the German version, but I must admit I’m unsure why they weren’t just reinserted back into the film. A note on the restoration in the booklet mentions the sound is quite bad but I didn’t think it was altogether too bad here. In the end, though, it’s definitely worth going through. It runs 36-minutes.
The final supplement on the disc is a 1958 audio recording of Dreyer talking about filmmaking. Dreyer first states he is “not a film theorist […] only a film director” but that a filmmaker still gets ideas about the craft from his work. He of course pushes that the director is the more important aspect of a film, though recognizes the team work aspect of making a film. He also talks about colour filmmaking, bringing up the Japanese film Gate of Hell as an excellent example. Dreyer speaks in English and I will admit at times I had trouble understanding every word he said, but it’s an interesting essay on the art of filmmaking (and art in general) by the director, but the fact he is obviously reading his essay and not in his native language does make it a bit dry. The audio plays over a still of Dreyer and runs approximately 24-minutes.
This closes off the disc supplements. Though it may feel a bit light on disc supplements Criterion does port over the entire package of their original DVD edition, yet again includeing a book containing the screenplay and one of the stories that inspired the film, the story “Carmilla” by Sheridan Le Fanu. The script is a little different, with some different sequences, different names and a different ending, and the movie doesn’t share much with the story other than the vampire angle, but after listening to Rayns and, to a lesser extenet, Tybjerg talking about both it was nice to be able to see the actual materials. The book has been resized to fit the Blu-ray packaging but is still 214 pages.
And rounding off the release is a 40-page booklet, containing a few essays and notes, as well as an interview. There is an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu (who professes a kinship with the author of “Carmilla”) offering a history and an analysis of the film. Another essay by author Kim Newman focuses not only Dreyer’s film but the vampire genre in general. A reprint of Martin Koerber’s notes on the 1998 restoration of Vampyr, which has more notes on the multiple versions of the film as well as the deleted scenes found in the French version. And then finally we get an interview with Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, a.k.a. Julian West, taken from a 1964 issue of Film Culture. In this interview he talks a bit about his history, his desire to be in film, and his work with Dreyer on Vampyr and his excitement over what sounds like a re-release of the film. An excellent booklet worth reading.
Again, like the old DVD, it doesn’t have a lot of on-disc content but it still feels like a very comprehensive and satisfying collection of material, the book and booklet adding a lot to it.
The upgrade is noticeable enough and the image certainly has a more filmic texture, at least in comparison to the old DVD, but we unfortunately don’t get a significant upgrade. At the very least Criterion has ported everything over from their original DVD edition and it’s yet again a lovely looking edition. Definitely worth picking up if you have yet to pick the film up or own the trimmed down later DVD printings.