Sheridan Le Fanu: In a glass darkly

For his horror film, Vampire, Dreyer was inspired by a collection of short stories by the Irish writer Le Fanu, though he also cast a glance at Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In Dreyer, unlike Le Fanu, vampiric possession is an external thing which threatens to devour a woman’s freedom from the inside but from which she can, fortunately, be delivered.

No great analysis is needed to establish that Dreyer’s horror film Vampire (1932) does not have much in common with its ostensible source, In a Glass Darkly (1872), a collection of short stories by the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). Dreyer well knew that this was not the most loyal of his adaptations, as is apparent from an interview by Bjørn Rasmussen, published in the Aktuelt newspaper on 2 Feb. 1964:
"Is anything left of the original story you acquired?"
"Not the slightest … but we were inspired by Sheridan le Fanu … he was already 'free' then … and … yes, by the fog that was found in the book we acquired."

"In Dreyer, vampirism is mainly a symbol of old age desiring to suck the essential life force out of youth."

- Morten Egholm

According to the Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who not only played the lead in the film but also was its financial producer, Dreyer was mainly looking for a book that generally dealt with the supernatural. The two of them read some 30 or 40 horror stories before Dreyer settled on Le Fanu’s. Judging from other statements Dreyer made about the film, it seems that he mainly wanted to use certain elements of In a Glass Darkly as jumping-off points for a different kind of horror film, one primarily focused on inner psychological states.

Victorian Gothic: cultivating the uncanny and the supernatural

In terms of literature history, Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly is best characterised as an example of Victorian Gothic, a distinct current in literature and architecture during the reign of British Queen Victoria from 1837-1901. Cultivating various thematic aspects of horror and the supernatural, the Victorian Gothic was a symbolic-aesthetic expression of the period’s growing fear of ethic degeneration and overarching doubt about the fairness of society’s firmly cemented structures. Some of these tales, moreover, employing supernatural phenomena and beings, thematise the repression of female sexual urges that was upheld as an ideal in the period. This theme is evident in both Le Fanu’s and Bram Stoker’s the vampire tales, respectively Carmilla (the last story in In a Glass Darkly, 1872) and Dracula (1897).

Le Fanu’s political-philosophical schism

Not only was Le Fanu a product of his time as a writer of Victorian Gothic, his works were also marked by his background among the Irish protestant aristocracy. Most of his life he was ideaistically torn between political-philosophical extremes. His social and religious background rooted him primarily in the conservative self-image of the British Empire. In fact, he was expected to become a Member of Parliament for the Tory Party (later the Conservative Party) in 1852, but that became impossible after he criticised the British government in the years up to 1852 for its lack of engagement in the Great Irish Famine (1845-1852). The schism in Le Fanu seems to be generally transferable to the inner dividedness suffered by many of his fictional characters.

Trapped in a demon world

All five tales in In a Glass Darkly – with the exception of one, The Room in the Dragon Valont – describe the inner turmoil of someone possessed by a demon or another supernatural being. Le Fanu’s characters are all trapped in a place where they are always seeing a dark, distorted mirror image of themselves and the world around them. Hence the book’s title, paraphrasing a New Testament quote describing the general human experience of the world. Le Fanu changed the preposition from the King James Bible’s "through a glass, darkly," as if to imply that his characters are trapped in their demon world that they cannot penetrate through or deliver themselves from. The first three short stories in the volume (Green Tea, The Familiar and Mr. Justice Harbottle) all make sure, by ambiguous wordings and descriptions, to leave a door open to a scientific, psychological explanation for the supernatural beings and occurrences. The supernatural events in the stories can be read as projections or figments of an unstable mind. This does not apply, however, to the title character of Carmilla, the book’s final and longest tale – of a female vampire threatening to possess the female first-person narrator completely – because the vampire’s presence is a reality to all the characters in the story.

Dreyer’s use of the tales

Generally, from the first to the last frame of Vampire, Dreyer makes sure to conform to the title of Le Fanu’s book. Practically everything in the film seems to be seen through a lens-glass, darkly, veiled and distorted. Conferring with his director of photographer, Rudolph Maté, Dreyer came up with the idea of placing a piece of tulle over the camera lens to obtain the blurry effect he was after. Moreover, it should be noted that Dreyer mentions the whole of Le Fanu’s book as his source. It is commonly assumed that he used only the last of the five stories, Carmilla, as his inspiration. However, the fourth story in the collection, The Room in the Dragon Volant, has an isolated plot element (the experience of being buried alive) and several moods that inspired Dreyer. The two elements that Dreyer got from Carmilla are the bones of the vampire plot and the instructions for, and the description of, how to get rid of a vampire.

Scene inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Considering that Dreyer adapted Le Fanu’s stories quiet freely, it is worth examining whether he might have been inspired by plot elements from other Gothic tales. Likely, he cast a glance at Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Dreyer’s screenplay includes an interesting scene that is not found in In a Glass Darkly or in the final film. In the scene, a pack of wild dogs chases a shepherd boy into the hotel where the protagonist Allan Gray is staying. It is implied that the dogs fall on the boy and kill him. Dreyer actually shot at least part of the scene, but he decided to eliminate it before he started recording the sound (a few stills have been preserved). The scene is quite reminiscent of a scene in Dracula, where a pack of wolves surrounds and nearly kills Jonathan Harker upon his arrival at Count Dracula’s castle. Dreyer chose not to include the scene in the final film, probably because he was concerned about copyright problems regarding scenes that were too close to Stoker’s novel. Stoker’s widow, Florence, had already bankrupted the German film company Prana-Film GmbH, when she sued over Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).

Sexual repression or the tyranny of old age

In Carmilla, a supernatural being is clearly used as a symbolic jumping-off point for thematising the Victorian repression of female sexuality. The story’s heroine, Laura, is best described as a self-revealing first-person narrator who seems to know less about herself than the story’s narrator and the reader do when the story is over. She is unaware that the destructive attraction between herself and, Carmilla, a young girl who has recently moved into her house (and turns out to be a vampire), is caused by her sexuality being repressed after her father hid her away like some hothouse flower at a remote place. Laura’s description of her physical possession by Carmilla, which frightens and fascinates her at once, indisputably has a strong sexual undercurrent. A sexually charged dream she has about Carmilla as a child is a premonition that her passage from childish innocence to sexual maturity will not be problem free. Carmilla is best interpreted as a split-off part of herself, a physical embodiment of the sexuality that Laura and her father refuse to face, which transforms sexuality into a bloodsucking demonic force. Perhaps this view of Carmilla as a split-off part of herself can explain why Le Fanu, rather unconventionally, made the erotic attraction lesbian in nature.

Dreyer tones down the lesbian conflict

Dreyer radically toned down the lesbian conflict in Vampire. In his film, the two young girls are sisters (and only one is the victim of possession), and he changed the vampire from a young, erotic woman to an old hag. Logically, this goes hand in glove with Dreyer’s fondness for depicting young women as oppressed and older women as oppressive (cf. Day of Wrath). In Dreyer, vampirism is mainly a symbol of old age desiring to suck the essential life force out of youth. Unlike in Le Fanu, vampiric possession in Dreyer is an external thing which threatens to devour a woman’s freedom from the inside but from which she can, fortunately, be delivered.
Even so, Vampire does leave a door open to interpreting Léone’s possession as lesbian sexuality. In the scene where she has just been returned to her sickbed after her trance-like walk in the castle gardens, she is again clearly possessed by some kind of demon, which is expressed through a powerfully erotic gaze. Lesbian, and incestuous, undertones are briefly suggested when she directs this erotic gaze at her sister.
Otherwise, it must be said, the relationship between the two sisters does not take up much space in Dreyer’s film. It is nothing like the in-depth psychological portrait of Laura in Carmilla. A fundamental difference is that the two sisters in Vampire, unlike Laura and Carmilla, can hardly be interpreted as two aspects of the same person. Dreyer more concretely leaves the split personality to Gray in the sequence that culminates when Gray is buried alive.

The literary source as a cultural boost for the film

As we have seen, Vampire is only very loosely inspired by the last two tales in Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly. This film is clearly the least loyal of Dreyer’s adaptations. The question, then, is why Dreyer even wanted to claim a literary source for his film. Drouzy (1982) locates the explanation in personal psychology, claiming that Dreyer was always afraid to stand up for screenplays based on his ideas, preferring "to hide behind a more or less well-known writer to conceal his own painful problems behind the work of another" (Vol. II, p. 132). The real explanation, however, does not seem to be that simple. Dreyer did not think it was important to put Le Fanu’s name on the title page of his script solely for private or personal reasons, but because he, throughout his directing career, thought his films would get a cultural boost from being based on respected works. Still, in this case, that was not enough to make him want to do a loyal adaptation. Dreyer was well into a phase of his career where he wanted to evolve as an experimental filmmaker.

By Morten Egholm | 22. May