Through the magic of digital technology (Martin Koerber, film restorer), a couple of aging prints (no original negatives to be found) have been miraculously transformed, enabling this first “sound-film” (1932) to be enjoyed by film and fear devotees worldwide.
It’s fascinating to watch and hear the transition. There are still numerous screens filled with narrative-driven descriptions of the action—as if director Carl Th. Dreyer didn’t wish to suddenly yank his audience from what was usually expected to what could now be. Wolfgang Zeller’s full score follows the drama closely. The rich string base (prone to a few misplaced portamenti and violas that howl more than a werewolf) supports melancholy clarinet lines and low brass to underscore the marvellously “portholed” coffin (allowing the camera to shoot from an incredible point of view: the recently departed’s vision of his tormenters peering down and an appropriately gothic church are shot upside down). In that scene, the apparently deceased cargo is the film’s hero, Allan Gray (Julian West whose daytime alter ego was Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg—wonder how he got the part …). The upper-class young man is lured to rural Courtempierre to feed his passion for “crazed ideas from past centuries.” There’s no shortage of those in this tightly crafted flick.
During his first sleepless night at the no-reservation-required country inn, Gray has an unsettling visit from the local aristocrat (Maurice Schutz). He’s come to protect the future of his daughters Gisèle (the ever-alluring Rena Mandel) and Léone (Sybille Schmitz). The latter seems to be at death’s door, suffering from the aftereffects of strange bite marks to her comely neck. Tellingly, a package with the inscription “open only in the event of my death” is given by the intruder to the fearless adventurer who never wonders or worries how the Lord of the Manor entered his locked room. Just a few scenes hence, a bullet from a shadowy musket proves just how accurately the future has been predicted.
Léone’s physician (sporting a Charlie Chaplin look and manner) and his literal peg-leg assistant prefer to make their eerie house calls at night. During a visit to the expiring Léone, Gray is coaxed into giving his blood and a bony skeleton offers a skull-and-crossbones cocktail to the hapless maiden. If some of this sounds confusing then look no further than to the vampire primer that the murdered nobleman’s father left for Gray. It conveniently provides him (and the viewer as a few pages take over the action) all of the necessary background and methodology for ridding the region of the Prince of Darkness’ representative, Marguerite Chopin, who wanders the countryside at night gorging on the blood of humankind at every opportunity.
The grainy camera work (Rudolph Maté, Louis Née) and early attempts at special effects (Henri Armand) combine to provide a feast of imagery that is remarkably captivating (most notably the out-of-body transparency of Gray when it’s his turn to stand on the precipice of the living dead). A couple of jerky edits (more in the sound than the picture) are the only flaws in a result that must rank high in the miracle category of restorations. Those watching with a crowd will collectively savour the grim revenge taken on the evil doctor as he witnesses firsthand the breathtaking grist from the machinery-rich mill of the damned.
A treasure trove of special features provides further information both on the process and the personalities behind this historic production. JWR