Asearch for films using the word vampire or vamp in the title will turn up dozens of pictures made in the silent era. But this is only because, after the 1915 A Fool There Was (inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Vampire”), in which star Theda Bara plays a glamorously destructive woman nicknamed the Vampire, the supernatural meaning of the term was temporarily eclipsed by its secondary sense as slang for a simple gold-digging seductress or general “bad girl.” As late as Dracula’s Daughter (1936), jokes depend on the double meaning—when the hero ventures out to hunt vampires with hammer and stake, his butler wryly comments, “But I always understood you went after them with checkbooks, sir.” Discounting Louis Feuillade’s Les vampires (1915), which features mysteriously powered supercriminals (including the slinky Irma Vep), and Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927), wherein Lon Chaney’s shark-toothed bloodsucker is ultimately revealed as a detective in disguise, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr is actually only the third major film (and the second talkie) to feature what would become the well-known vampire of popular culture: a bloodsucking revenant who can transform victims into similar creatures and be destroyed by a stake through the heart or the light of the sun.
I’ve always wondered whether Dreyer had seen Browning’s Dracula (1931), released while Vampyr was in preproduction, or F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). All three feature a young, haunted-looking hero arriving at a remote location and falling under the sway of a malign vampire who dominates the region—but that could as easily be down to coincidence, or the probability that Dreyer derived at least some of his plot from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, the foundation of the other two. It’s hard, somehow, to imagine the ascetic, spiritually inclined Dane buying a ticket for Browning’s full-blooded Hollywood melodrama and shivering at the baleful glare of Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula. Obviously, he was closer in temperament to the German Murnau, who shot his film in real ruined castles rather than rely on elaborately Gothic studio sets. Like Murnau, Dreyer began his career in European commercial cinema but found his ambitions out of alignment with studio expectations—his masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), was initially a flop—and slid toward a more art-house, amateur mode of moviemaking. Murnau worked in the studio systems of Germany and America before making documentaries in the South Seas, whereas Dreyer could mount Vampyr only by finding a wealthy patron, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who financed the film and (under the stage name Julian West) took the leading role. This alone aligns the film more with experiments like Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1929), and Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930) than, say, post-Dracula genre quickies like The Vampire Bat (1933) or Condemned to Live (1935).
According to the credits of some of its many variant prints, Vampyr is based on In a Glass Darkly (1872), by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, a collection of marginally linked novellas. But the only story in the book that has any resemblance to Dreyer and Christen Jul’s script is the oft-filmed “Carmilla,” with its female vampire antagonists. The young, ethereal Carmilla is very unlike the aged, solid Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard), though the two successive girl victims in the Le Fanu might have transformed into the sisters Léone (Sybille Schmitz) and Gisèle (Rena Mandel). Vampyr seems more like a screen original that tries to feel like an oft-told tale, with silent-movie-style prose captions between scenes and characters who drift through the plot as if trapped in a recurring nightmare. Still, the evocation of Le Fanu’s female vampire is significant—just as “Carmilla” established a countertradition of the seductive female vampire, Vampyr is the first film to make much of such a figure, as incarnated by the dour crone Marguerite and the semitransformed Léone.
Nosferatu eliminates entirely the four female vampire characters from Dracula, and its heroine Nina dies without becoming the semivampire Mina Harker does in the novel. Even in Browning’s Dracula, which does feature Stoker’s female vampires, the white-draped brides of Dracula are virtual extras, and a subplot about the posthumous activities of Dracula’s first English victim, Lucy, has been pruned (the film cares so little about her that she is left undead and presumably dangerous at the fade-out). From Stoker (and Browning), Dreyer takes one crucial scene—in which the female victim of a vampire half transforms and is almost overcome with bloodlust but unable to go through with biting the hero. It is Dreyer, however, who highlights the erotic as well as the terrifying aspect of this scene—thus founding an entire subgenre of vampire movie, in which the kiss of the vampire is a tantalizing promise as much as a disease-ridden threat.
Though the folkloric roots of the vampire are deep, the literary figure dates back only to John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819), which introduces Lord Ruthven, an aristocratic leech who swans around Europe dominating weaker minds and preying on enraptured maidens. Polidori was adapting the myth of the vampire in the prose equivalent of a satiric cartoon, depicting his sometime friend Lord Byron as a literal rather than metaphoric demonic figure. The story had an enormous European vogue—it was adapted several times for the British and French stage, and Alexandre Dumas spun his own stage version off into a semisequel. Following Ruthven, the next significant vampire was Sir Francis Varney, who begins James Malcolm Rymer’s serial novel Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood (1847) as a fake vampire but ends it as a real one, throwing himself into Mount Vesuvius to escape his curse. It is significant, then, that when Le Fanu sat down to write “Carmilla,” the major literary vampires were aristocratic British men (onstage, Ruthven was often played as a kilted Scot). And Le Fanu not only chose to make his vampires female; by giving his villainess Mircalla (who inaugurates the Alucardian habit of using an anagram as a pseudonym) a middle-European background (she’s Austrian) and a distinguished, if frightful, family (the Karnsteins), he also made a permanent shift in the favored locale of the vampire story.
As Mario Praz notes in The Romantic Agony, his definitive study of the Gothic imagination, the figure of the “fatal man,” represented in his purest form by the domineering male vampires who reached their apotheosis with Stoker’s Dracula, almost inevitably gives rise to the sister archetype of the “fatal woman,” who uses subtler wiles but is no less deadly. Before Carmilla, Goethe’s Bride of Corinth, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Aurelia, John Keats’s Lamia, Théophile Gautier’s Clarimonde, and the witch in Gogol’s “Viy” were sketches for this type of vampire—who came to the cinema first humbly, as the hollow-eyed Bat Girl of London After Midnight and the three pale, silent brides in Dracula, before taking a more prominent role in Dracula’s Daughter. Carmilla, even in Le Fanu’s story, is as submissive as she is predatory, a dutiful daughter palmed off on host families like a cuckoo in the nest (without the vampire theme, Le Fanu’s plot is used in the Drew Barrymore thriller Poison Ivy, from 1992) and getting close to her victims by a pose of seeming helplessness. Aside from Gloria Holden’s slightly matronly turn in Dracula’s Daughter, vampire women in the cinema tended to be patterned on Lucy in Dracula—victims transformed into fanged sex kittens by sadistic male masters, and turned loose on virtuous heroes.
Even Musidora’s iconic Irma Vep is merely a minion of the Grand Vampire. Schmitz’s Léone in Vampyr also fits this template, and her feral bloodlust smile is a clear precedent for the fang-flashing lust/thirst of Valerie Gaunt in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958), Isobel Black in Kiss of the Vampire (1963), and Amanda Bearse in Fright Night (1985). Dominant female vampires were rare in the movies until the sixties and seventies unleashed the likes of Thorina (Lorena Velázquez) in Samson vs. the Vampire Women (1962), Elisabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) in Daughters of Darkness (1971), and Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) in The Hunger (1983). Often, like Carmilla, these characters tend to compound their vampirism with sexual ambiguity—which was not true of male vampires until Anne Rice’s novel Interview with the Vampire (1976) influenced a generation of beautiful, decadent male vampires, from Frank Langella’s disco look in Dracula (1979) to the dropouts of The Lost Boys (1987).
The character of Marguerite Chopin remains unusual, if not quite unique, in vampire literature and film. Vampires may be centuries old, but they tend not to look as ancient as Gérard’s white-haired “woman from the graveyard,” unless the light of day or a stake through the heart transforms them into a crone (like the Gérard look-alike extra Valerie Gaunt becomes when staked), before they dwindle to dust. Alternately, like Ingrid Pitt in Countess Dracula (1971) or Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), they might be introduced as aged but become young and lovely after draining their victims dry. Nevertheless, there are old lady vampires in fiction. In “The Death of Halpin Fraser” (1893), Ambrose Bierce’s protagonist is victimized by an old woman who, to turn the screw, is his dead mother returned to ravenous life, whereas Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Good Lady Ducayne” (1896) is an invalid who forces her young companions to donate their blood in fatal transfusions, and R. H. Benson’s “Mrs. Amworth” (1920) is an apparently mild-mannered middle-aged nurse who nips at patients, who tend not to survive her care. Though Gérard’s Marguerite is not as extravagantly repulsive as Max Schreck’s Dracula stand-in Graf von Orlok in Nosferatu or Chaney’s bogus vampire, Dreyer makes her frightening simply by dwelling on her careworn face and blank eyes, which the audience invests with malevolence. The director was temperamentally unable to resort to makeup tricks (fangs, etc.) and had to rely on Gérard’s found face and Schmitz’s acting ability to project their unnatural state. Perhaps ironically, Browning took the same approach—with his curious cadences and highlighted eyes, Lugosi was so much the incarnation of Dracula that he didn’t need fake teeth either, and fangs did not become essential to the screen Dracula until Christopher Lee’s startling appearance in Hammer’s first Dracula in 1958.
Vampyr has few legitimate successors, though its veil-like shadow might fall over Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead (1945), Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968), Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), and Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002). Its specific setup, in which an older woman “turns” a younger girl to vampirism, reoccurs seldom—in Blood of Dracula (1957), where a matronly professor scientifically mutates a teenager into a flared-eyebrowed fiend, for instance—and never again without a sexual component in the relationship. Made before the floodgates opened and vampires infested popular culture in every form, Vampyr is a dreamy alternative to the standard notion of horror. The success of Browning’s Dracula inspired the production of Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Mummy (1932), Doctor X (1932), The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), and many others. Before this burst of activity, it couldn’t really be said that there was such a genre as the horror film. Made across an ocean from this cycle, by a director and collaborators who can scarcely have been aware of the monsters coming to life as Boris Karloff first trod heavily on Universal soundstages, Vampyr is the horror film’s weaker twin, a frail, sickly, unnerving thing that did not thrive but that haunts its healthier brother to this day.