Unlike Nosferatu, which tried hard to pretend it wasn’t based on Stoker’s book and failed because it obviously was, Vampyr claims to be based on Le Fanu’s “In a Glass Darkly”. The beautiful Criterion Collection DVD version even comes with a print copy of ‘Carmilla’. But even if Le Fanu’s descendants were as finickity as Joyce’s they’d be hard pushed to prove any breach of copyright.
Dreyser’s film ghosts the stories: an image here, a piece of plot. There’s a vampire, and she’s female (though old and ?blind?), and there’s a young female victim, but that’s about it. You could track other allusions. But even the obvious reference to the Dragon Volant, or the mysterious stranger in the bed room from …which story was that…. are not exclusive to those particular stories and all the allusions remain like occasional snatches of familiar music in an unfamiliar soundtrack.
The fact the story is not tied to any sources is an obvious advantage. There’s no primary text to provide easy answers to the obvious puzzles. So, a recognisable version of Carmilla this is not, although Laura’s habitual ”it appeared to be’ “it seemed” has been taken to the limit. A conventional horror story this is not and even the vampire element, which is explained by the old book, is muted.
Shadows move, some separate from their bodies, some return to them. Scene and time shift abruptly without causal linkage. Characterisation is missing. Narrative discontinuity starts to seem perfectly sensible. Images seem weighted with significance that is never explored or explained. Light becomes a character just as the old book does. In a fog bound, physically realistic landscape (Dreyser shot the whole film on location) which it would be impossible to map. All this and the editing and camera work create a beautiful film which explains very little. It’s what surrealist poetry could have been. A tribute to the time when film was still regarded as an experimental art form.
What we do get is the subjective experience of the inexplicable. If such things happened, and you were caught up in them,remembering them would, I suspect, feel a lot more like this than most modern “horror films”.