Saturday, October 18, 2008

Halloween Horrors-Nosferatu

We're going real old-school this time, because today's film is Nosferatu (1922). It's regarded as a classic of horror, the silent era, and of German Expressionism. It's all this and a bit more, and if you have a bias against black-and-white films or silent ones, maybe you should put all that aside and give this fright film a try.

The story, simply enough, is a retelling of the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, with the names and places changed to German names. Instead of Dracula, we have Orlok, for example. Basically, the film tells the tale of a man sent to visit a mysterious recluse who happens to be a vampire. Said vampire travels to the town where the man and his beloved live, as the vampire is smitten with her. But, being as he is a vampire and this is a horror film, he does not bring roses and chocolates...he brings death , plague, and terror instead. Will the dread Orlok get the lovely young girl, or will he be defeated?

Though any summary of Nosferatu's script sounds like just a Dracula rip-off/homage(more on that later), it's the way that it's done that makes it more than just a German Dracula rip. Directed by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu achieves a creepy atmosphere of menace and dread. Orlok's appearance is far from the usual handsome-creature-of-the-night riff that we've seen in print and onscreen since this film was shot. Orlok isn't a suave, debonair aristocratic bloodsucker-he's a monster, plain and simple. His bald head, large, pointed ears, and long, talon-like fingernails mark him as a figure of terror(played by Max Schreck). He wears a long, buttoned-up coat, not an elegant cape and eveningwear. The way Orlok moves is even inhuman...he doesn't climb out of his coffin , he rises up like some demonic figure in a twisted children's pop-up book. Doors open for him as he approaches, and his shadow, cast upon the wall, exudes nearly as much menace as he himself does.

There's also a very subtle undercurrent of Black Magic in the film. Early in the movie, there is a letter from Orlok to Herr Knock , but there's no writing per se, instead the paper is covered in strange symbols and sigils. This, apparently, was the work of the film's art director, Albin Grau. Grau was not only an art director, but a member of some occult groups, and practiced magical rituals. The symbols covering the paper were 'authentic' mystical symbols.

When the film came out, many noticed the story was basically a German Dracula...especially Bram Stoker's widow, who took the film company to court. After many protracted legal battles, the Stoker estate was found in the right, and all copies of the film were to be destroyed. Well, obviously that didn't happen, and I for one am glad it didn't. I can see wanting to be financially repaid for your intellectual property, but to have all copies of the film wiped from the face of the Earth seems a bit extreme to me, especially since it's such a good film. As it was, Nosferatu was the only fiom that particular company produced, as they went bankrupt after the legal dust had settled.

Nosferatu would prove not only to outlive the legal dictates of the Stokers, but go on to influence generations of horror films. A remake was made in 1979 by Werner Herzog starring Kluas Kinski as Orlok. The made-for-TV miniseries Salem's Lot, also done in 1979, based on Stephen King's novel, had a vampire make-up for actor Reggie Nalder that , while scary, was basically just an updated Orlok, with glowing yellow contact lenses. In 2000, E. Elias Merhige directed Shadow of the Vampire, a clever film that tells the story of Nosferatu's filming. In Merhige's film, Schreck was a real vampire, and Murnau(John Malkovich) told the cast and crew that he was just a Method actor who just wanted to stay in make-up at all times to better portray his role. One notable scene is where Schreck(played by Willam Defoe) joins the cast who are drinking one night, and sits with them . As he talks, a bat flies overhead and Schreck nonchalantly snatches it from mid-air and drinks it dry, which makes the cast think he's really getting into his role.

Nosferatu is a great film, and even though it has some of that over-emotive acting style that was a product of the silent era, it's aged pretty well. If you want to see a well-done horror film whose claws still reach across time to influence the genre, check it out.


Charles Gramlich said...

I enjoyed this movie pretty well. It's very creepy and eerie. Almost an art film in some ways.

Scott said...


It is an 'art' film in a way, I suppose, but it does deliver the heebie-geebies.