Film review: Vampyr (1932), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

“I wanted to create a waking dream on screen and show that horror is not to be found in the things around us but in our own subconscious” — Carl Theodor Dreyer about his film, Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr is a hypnotic and claustrophobic mix of eerie images featuring surreal elements shown through an interplay of light and darkness, disorienting geography and camera movement, morbid shot compositions, and occult symbolism. Some thematic elements are obscure sickness, a man’s shadow coming to life, the iconic horror film sight of the man with the scythe, constantly misty weather, and nightmares about being buried alive.

The chambers of the abandoned buildings are metaphors for the rooms of the mind. Any lines between reality and nightmare appear to be blurred. Allan, the dreamer, has an obsession with the occult, and his perspective is sometimes ambiguous, seemingly unreliable. Through the technique of superimposition, his identity is split, and a ghostly image of him emerges.

The haziness of the shots was initially accidental, due to light exposure; then Dryer decided this aesthetic was suitable for the concept of the film and adopted the look using translucent fabric over the lens as a texture and soft focus photography.
The elusive and ephemeral quality of the film is also given by the fact that some of the material was lost, some of it was later restored and re-edited, and the film exists in different versions.

Film sequence analysis: Melancholia (2011) – the surreal overture

The opening sequence of Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier), a collection of gloomy, surreal, painting-resembling, slow-motion shots, is an insidious introduction to the themes of this compelling cinematic symphony of death and destruction. What completes the eerie dreamscape is the exquisite, haunting piece of music by Wagner – the Prelude to the tragic opera Tristan und Isolde, which magnifies the sorrow depicted in the shots and throughout the whole film. The film and the opera both exhibit the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, revolving around unhappiness, death, and painful, unfulfilled human yearning. The nocturnal landscape, the Realm of the Night from Wagner’s opera, symbolically stands for the realm of hidden truth; and the only escape or redemption from a world perceived as evil and relentlessly suffering, is spiritual release, death, hence Justine’s morbid Ophelia moment and the early appearance of the destructive planet, “Melancholia”. The deadly planet, with its suggestive name, is a metaphor most beautifully conveyed visually when Justine, the perpetually despondent and apathetic bride, bathes naked in its light and is shown yearning for its life-threatening touch, on the same musical notes from the Prelude. Death appears in other forms in von Trier’s haunting cinematic overture as well, such as the striking nightmarish image of the dead birds falling from the sky in the background whilst Justine’s cold blank face is shown in a close-up shot; or the horse collapsing backwards in bleak surroundings. Another memorable surreal image is that of a fascinated Justine staring at her fingertips as they seem to be connected to the bolts of lightning.

Within the themes and the atmosphere of Melancholia, we can also find echoes of Wagner’s own beautifully dark poetic words about Tristan und Isolde, once again resonating with Schopenhauer’s philosophy. He describes the tragic story as “a tale of endless yearning, longing, the bliss and wretchedness of love; world, power, fame, honour, chivalry, loyalty, and friendship all blown away like an insubstantial dream; one thing left living – longing, longing unquenchable, a yearning, a hunger, a languishing forever renewing itself; one sole redemption – death, finality, a sleep without awakening…”

A glimpse of Annihilation (2018). The Uncanny Within.

After the success of his intense directorial debut, Ex Machina, Alex Garland creates a cinematic adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s first book from the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation. The sci-fi thriller turns out to be a visually stunning exploration into the unknown, which in this case borrows the form of the enigmatic ‘Shimmer’, a disquieting yet alluring foreign veil encompassing a part of the Earth, Area X – ceaselessly expanding and threatening to swallow the whole world.

The film opening reveals Lena, the protagonist, a biologist portrayed by the enigmatic, detached Natalie Portman who appears disoriented while being interrogated about the expedition and its survivors. The next scene introduces us for a brief moment to the desolate landscape surrounding the lighthouse, which is mysteriously related to the powerful alien presence the film revolves around. The lighthouse becomes a symbol, the connection with another world, with something uncanny, just like the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

The eerie and toxic beauty of the scenery from Area X echoes the dystopian “Zone” depicted in the well-known sci-fi, Stalker (1979), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Similarly, just as the Zone proves to be a philosophical journey, the Area X expedition also symbolises an exploration inwards, and eventually, a disintegration of identity – an idea poetically alluded to through the words of the psychologist in a crucial intense scene towards the end: “Unfathomable mind: now beacon, now sea.”, quoting Samuel Beckett.

A geomorphologist, a paramedic, a physicist, a biologist, and a psychologist enter the Shimmer seeking answers and, whilst they encounter biological anomalies, beauty and decay, and a lot of unanswerable questions, we are encouraged to wonder what really lies beyond their (and our) human drive to enter the unknown, and how the uncanny encountered outwards echoes the uncanny within each of them.

Annihilation (2018), the absorbing sci-fi thriller, can be found on Netflix.