BOOTLEG FILES 759: “Castle of Doom” (mid-1930s re-edited version of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr”).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On a VHS label in the 1980s.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Missing materials and a lack of commercial value.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope!
It is not uncommon for a film be considered a flop when it first opened, only to be re-evaluated years later and belatedly declared a masterwork. One of the most striking examples of this scenario is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr,” which opened in 1932 to withering reviews and dismal box office returns – the failure of the film caused Dreyer to have a nervous breakdown and not direct another film for a decade. Today, the film is considered a horror masterpiece – and not only did it survive its rough opening, but it also moved beyond a wretched re-edit for American audiences.
Dreyer wanted to shoot “Vampyr” as a silent film, but that was not commercially viable in the early 1930s. Instead, he worked from a script that had the barest minimum of dialogue and had his cast mouth their lines in French, German and English, with the actual dialogue added in post-production. Using this strategy, Dreyer believed he could gain a wider theatrical release in French-, German- and English-language markets.
“Vampyr” was not a success in its European release – audiences were expecting an invigorating horror film along the lines of the American features “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” which were very popular with European audiences. Dreyer did not create any memorable monsters, but used psychological and emotional horror in his tale of vampirism in a remote chateau. Shadows, silhouettes, physically unsettling characters and Rudolph Maté’s soft-focus cinematography gave the film a style that was closer to underground avant-garde than Universal Pictures’ monster mashes.
Audiences of the time were baffled and angry at Dreyer’s artistically dreamlike concept of vampiric possession – a riot broke out at a Vienna theater when moviegoers unsuccessfully demanded refunds. No major U.S. distributor would touch the film, and “Vampyr” turned up on this side of the Atlantic in 1934 via the tiny General Foreign Sales Corp., which specialized in importing German-language films for limited release. Dreyer’s English-dubbed version played in the U.S. under the titles “The Vampire” and “Not Against the Flesh,” but made no impact.
Today, the Dreyer English-dubbed version of “Vampyr” is considered lost. However, another English-language version turned up a few years later under the title “Castle of Doom” – a strange new name, considered the film is absent of castles. This version attempted to make the film more palatable for American viewers, but only created a work of monumental incoherence.
While audiences in 1932 did not appreciate Dreyer’s sparse use of dialogue, the brilliance of “Vampyr” is the minimal use of the spoken word. Dreyer uses sound effects and Wolfgang Zeller’s haunting score to their fullest, creating an uncommon sense of eeriness.
“Castle of Doom,” however, steamrolled Dreyer’s careful composition by blanketing the viewer with a wall-to-wall narration presented by a motormouthed voice actor. The effect quickly becomes wearisome as nearly every aspect of each scene is described in brutal depth. As for the situations where dialogue is presented, incongruous American voices are crudely dubbed in, with little consideration to either matching the actor’s lip movements or their physical presence.
“Castle of Doom” also chops down several of Dreyer’s lengthy scenes, jettisons others and re-edits the film’s ending. The result is nightmarish to anyone who appreciates the Dreyer original and utterly confusing to anyone who never saw the classic work prior to this mutilation.
“Castle of Doom” had a scant theatrical release in the mid-1930s, but barely registered with audiences. Somehow, it turned up in 1954 as part of the late-night Los Angeles-based horror film television show hosted by Vampira. It later appeared in the 8mm home movie market, and a print from that micro-format was sourced by the public domain label Sinister Cinema for a VHS video release in the 1980s. (One must assume that the original 35mm materials are lost.) But the audio and visual quality of that 8mm print was unsatisfactory and even the Sinister Cinema team – who weren’t exactly obsessed with quality control – realized it was near-unwatchable and dropped it from their catalogue.
Anyone who is vaguely curious about the rickety nature of “Castle of Doom” can find an unauthorized copy uploaded to YouTube from the Sinister Cinema video – and you can tell its source because the presentation starts with a “Pause” icon on the screen. But good luck trying to make sense of this offering – between the crackles on the soundtrack and a dreary visual quality, it is often impossible to decipher what is going on.
Mercifully, a pristine quality of “Vampyr” was released by The Criterion Collection, so today’s viewers can appreciate Dreyer’s work as he intended it to be experienced.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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