Tuesday, October 06, 2009

“Is this your wife? What a lovely throat.”

Vampires. Do you think your Lestats and your Cullens are VAMPIRES?? No…these are not vampires. Not the creatures stepping out of the swirling shadows of a night far more ancient than any living human has a right to know about. Not the inhuman eyes that look back across the campfire that wait for you to blink and then vanish into your nightmares. Those vampire imitators are merely the unsuccessful children of the night. True vampires are the undisputed lords of the nocturnal. Lords like Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror). Released in 1922, this version of the Dracula story didn’t have the permission of the estate of Bram Stoker to adapt his novel. Most ironically, it is a…miracle that any copies of this example of German Expressionism still exist since they were all supposed to have been destroyed.

A hapless solicitor is sent by his boss to Transylvania to help a reclusive nobleman purchase a house in his city. The solicitor’s wife doesn’t want him to go, but he does. Oh he does, and the experience nearly kills him. The papers finalized, the nobleman, who is clearly not among the living, travels aboard ship, getting dinner along with his cruise, and when he finally arrives, plague breaks out.

Hutter: Gustav von Wangenheim plays the facepalmingly stupid solicitor sent to Transylvania. That isn’t the problem, there he’s just a guy who asks “how bad could it be?” No, his greater mistakes happen when he arrives, hears the warnings and dismisses them as petty, provincial superstitions. Worse still, he fails to see the obvious when things get really weird on his trip to the castle.

Ellen Hutter: The beautiful Greta Schroeder is fantastic in this film. She plays Hutter’s wife, a woman of great compassion but also frailty. When he leaves town, its almost too much for her and she pines for him every day that he’s gone. She can sense that something is wrong, though of course no one believes her. She’s much too good (in the “saving the city” sort of way) to be saddled with him.

Knock: Alexander Granach plays Hutter’s boss, a man secretly a loyal devotee of the nosferatu. After Hutter leaves, Knock takes leave of his senses and is confined to a mental institute, where he rants and raves to his heart’s content.

Graf Orlock: Max Shreck, a veteran of German stage and screen is the reason why you’re here. His tall, gaunt, bald, ratlike vampire is possibly the most successfully creepy vampire put on the screen. He’s horrific, not just in appearance, but in body language and in behavior. He lives alone in a creepy decrepit castle and the local villagers won’t go anywhere near that place. The way he turns his head to look at someone. The way he walks. The way he rises out of his coffin. All of these things are absolutely disturbing. He contains all of the rapaciousness of vampires and none of the alluring sexuality. Wherever Orlok goes, plague and blight follow him. One of the most badass vampires in all of film history.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau creates an excellent atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Interior scenes combined with location shooting in Eastern Europe give the visuals weight and realism. The lighting is appropriately oppressive. The real interesting parts are the camera tricks/special effects. To convey the inhuman speed and unreality of several things, like a carriage driven by a grim cloaked man, a stop-motion effect is used, and its fantastic. More iconic are the use of Orlok in silhouette. His ascent up a flight of stairs at the end of the movie in shadow form and then watching his shadowy fingers stretch and stretch and stretch into a doorway are fantastic. Tremendous stuff. The only complaint I can muster is that the pacing of the film lags quite a bit in the middle as Orlok is in transit. His voyage is interesting, but Hutter’s convalescence is considerably less so.

Henrik Galeen did a fair job of adapting Bram Stoker’s work, taking care to change the names to protect the filmmakers. It didn’t really work, because the plot is clearly that of the novel Dracula, but I give credit to Galeen for mixing things up a bit by making the vampire’s arrival in town the beginning of a virulent plague that just keeps killing and killing.

Surely you must be joking. Again, since this is a public domain silent film, different versions exist with different soundtracks added. Beware of versions that have heavy midi level scores. You will be clawing at your ears after five minutes, experiencing a pain seldom found at the audible range of human hearing.

Nosferatu is an astoundingly great silent film. It is also probably the best realized early and very disturbing horror movie, and easily one of the greatest vampire films ever made.

Being from 1922, there's no actual trailer, but here's a clip of probably the best scene. Its public domain anyway, so you can find it on the internets and watch for free.

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