Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Nosferatu (1922)

Also known as: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror)
Country: Germany
Director: F. W. Murnau
Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder
Based on: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)
Length: 94 minutes

Thomas Hutter travels to Transylvania from Wisborg, Germany, to finalize the purchase of a Wisborg home by the mysterious Count Orlok. But when Hutter discovers that Orlok is actually a vampire, he must find a way to destroy him before his wife Ellen become the monster’s next victim.

Though not technically the first horror film (credit for that arguably goes to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Nosfertu forever etched both Dracula and vampire mania into popular culture. Filmed in the German expressionist style using only one camera, Murnau’s classic was actually an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula due to an inability to obtain rights to the story.  When Stoker’s family sued, the courts ordered that all copies be destroyed. Prana Film, the company behind Nosferatu (its only film), went bankrupt to avoid the repercussions of legal action. One print survived, to which all subsequent prints are forever indebted.

Unlike later vampires, Orlok doesn’t turn his victims into the undead, he merely bleeds them dry. Two versions of the film exist, subtitle-wise: one in which the characters bear the names invented by Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen, and the other with the original names from Stoker’s novel. The original score by Hans Erdmann was lost over time, resulting in countless new scores by various artists since. (See John Malkovich and Willem Defoe in Shadow of the Vampire!)

When I was nine years old, one film and one TV show - both about vampires - ruined me for life. The first was Dracula starring a young and dashing Frank Langela, the other was the TV movie version of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. It was 1979 and my father, God bless him, thought it no big deal to bring his only child to the movies to enjoy a little popcorn among the undead. I still can’t watch Mina creep towards the screen, cold hands outstretched, calling out for her “Papa”.

Similar good judgment the year before had rendered me perpetually catatonic at beaches thanks to a certain great white shark. 

But it was the Master vampire in Salem’s Lot that really freaked me out. That bald, white head, those bat-like ears, those ferocious incisors, that. . .wait a minute! And they accused Nosferatu of ripping Bram Stoker off?! The fact is, the make-up and costume for Salem’s ghoulish villain was stolen detail for detail from the big N, suggesting that by 1979, there weren’t a lot of fresh cinematic spins left when it came to the Count and his ilk. (Forgive me, Mr. Coppola.)

However, put yourself in a seat at the theatre nearly 60 years earlier, before Romero, Friedkin or Carpenter, and imagine how Nosferatu must have affected audiences then! I agree with Roger Ebert that, by today’s standards, the film is creepier than it is frightening. But it is so, even in a generation inured to big-screen visualizations of terror, mainly because it taps so deeply into our primal fear of what might be waiting for us around that corner, whether on an evening stroll at night alone or in our darkest nightmares.

Corny in places? Yup. Occasionally unbearable stretches of eye-rolling melodrama? Mm-hmm. But whenever Count Orlak turned and began lurking toward the screen, I still managed to turn into a slightly paralyzed puddle of goo. Thanks, Dad!

This story will seem awfully familiar if you’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for reasons already well stated. Thomas Hutter sets out for Transylvania to settle a real estate deal with the Count over a piece of property conveniently located across the street from his own home. Finding great neighbours: priceless!

As he makes his way to the Count’s castle, he runs across some fairly obvious indicators that maybe this isn’t such a great idea. Naturally, he laughs them off (literally) before continuing on. After all, he could really use the commission! But when Tom arrives and wakes up the next morning with “bug bites” on his neck, accompanied by Count Orlak’s praise of Ellen’s “beautiful neck” in a photograph Tom is carrying, it finally occurs to the old boy what a bloody mess he’s gotten himself into. Ahem.

There are some good scares in this one, as well as some great action and a score that really helps sell the fear, even if it’s not the original. Putting myself in the context of the time, I was able to get into it. Nonetheless, I couldn’t quite get over how completely Murnau had ripped off Stoker’s novel. How dare he, I gasped defensively over and over again as Paul soothed me with sweet nothings like, “really?” and “get over it!” Still, it’s easy to see how Nosferatu helped shape what horror films look like today.

Now can we please move on to movies where we can hear what the people are saying??

Nope, not yet. Remember, this was your idea.

Where’s the chocolate??

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