Friday, September 18, 2009

Nosferatu (1922)

As we gear up for Hail Horror 4, I'll be posting the reviews from last year's batch (which originally ran on Geek Monkey). Our first entry is the silent vampire masterpiece from F.W. Murnau:
Although it's considered a "cornerstone of the horror film" it's safe to say that in the early part of the 21st Century the silent classic NOSFERATU by F.W. Murnau probably isn't going to frighten anyone. Or will it? It's been over 80 years since its release, and as an artifact of an earlier time it's beautiful, full of the surreal moments and haunting images that have become legendary for their impact on movies, but scary?

Loosely based on Bram Stoker's classic Dracula (but changed for legal reasons after a battle with the estate of Mr. Stoker) NOSFERATU is the story of young Hutter, who must travel to Transylvania to secure housing for the mysterious Count Orlok in Wisborg, conveniently located across the street from Hutter and his worried bride. He must, as he tells his wife, "travel over the the land of phantoms." Orlok is of course our vampire, our demon of the night, the reason the first paragraph ends in a question instead of a statement is the visceral fear Orlok still manages to illicit after all this time. To this day there's still simply nothing like the indelible image of Max Schreck as the evil blood-sucking freak:

Visually the film is stunning. There is a poetry to Murnau's choice of angles and color tints, moving from golden amber to sickening greens and blues. One of the benefits of silent films was the increased ability of camera movement and placement, and more often than not Murnau chooses what feels like the only angle in which many of the shots could have been done. After a bit of a slow start he also moves the film right along, using a lot of location shooting for realism, which juxtaposes nicely with the surreal, nightmarish moments. Consider our first solid indication of the creature Orlok is, as Hutter stumbles upon his daytime resting place:

Yes, the film belongs to Schreck's titular demon, but the rest of the cast does a fine job as well. Gustav Von Wangenheim has some good scenes as Hutter, particularly when he's trying to escape from Orlok's castle. Hutter's wife, Ellen (played by Greta Schroder) is dazzling, conveying the madness and draw she feels without the benefit of words. There's a wonderful sequence where we see her sleepwalk, her dreams haunted by the vampire while simultaneously Orlok is approaching Hutter for a late night snack. But the focus is Schreck's Orlok, and all the stops are brought out to emphasize the fantastical elements of the creature. The camera stands transfixed as it (and we) watch Orlok single-handedly load coffins of earth onto a horse-drawn carriage (a scene echoed in homage in Don Coscarelli's PHANTASM), placing a final, empty coffin on top, which he promptly crawls into. Some nice stop-motion camera work shows the coffin lid rising up and placing itself in firmly on top and the carriage speeds off for the docks and, ultimately, Hutter's home of Wisborg.

Death pervades the movie - we see (in red tint) a Venus Fly Trap eat an unsuspecting fly. Spiders devour insects caught in their web. Blood and death are constantly remarked upon in conversation. The intertitles play an important part of the film, as do the "narrated" pieces of text from the pages of a diary that has knowledge of the events of NOSFERATU. Echoes of the pieces we commonly associate with the various Dracula movies and books are here, too: the crazy Renfield character, here portrayed by Hutter's employer, a crazed rental agent who suffers over arcane runes and finally winds up in a mental institution screaming "Blood is Life! Blood is Life!" The sleeping in coffins, the rats, the unexplained bites on the neck. Even the arrival of the vampire by ship, and the grisly fate of the ship's crew:

Those not familiar with silent film (or any films from further back then, say, 1960), might easily chalk NOSFERATU down as a "quaint" just because of the time it was made. Don't - it's a mistake to think that Murnau and crew weren't experts in what they were doing - the whole of the film is filled with incredible moments of dream and nightmare, masterfully manipulated with some judicious quick editing, super-imposing images on top of one another, and a wonderful orchestral score by Hans Erdmann. It may not come across as what we would today define as "scary" but as a tone poem of mood NOSFERATU is a masterpiece, combing all the necessary elements of storytelling to depict a nightmare tale of fear and dread, and in its character of Orlok, Nosferatu, ushers in perhaps the most terrifying image of the Vampire to date.

NOTE: There are dozens of versions of NOSFERATU on the shelves, many priced at bargain deals. Most are 3rd and 4th generation VHS and television copies dubbed onto disc. If you're looking for a clean, pristine version of the film, you could do a lot worse than the excellent KINO Ultimate DVD Edition, which features a completely restored version of the film along with the original score newly orchestrated in 5.1 surround sound, numerous documentaries and galleries, as well as the ability to watch the film with the original German intertitles or brand new English intertitles which are seamlessly integrated into the film. It's a little more money at $24.99, but well worth the price.

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