Silent Screams! Nosferatu (1922)
by Steve Habrat
There was a time when audiences feared the vampire. He wasn’t viewed as a sex symbol, a glittery pretty boy who pined after a pasty high school girl, drove a sports car like Vin Diesel, and (I shudder to even write this) went out in sunlight. No, there was a time when the vampire was a monster, a creature that leapt from the shadows of our nightmares and hovered over us while we slept in the dead of night. He was a representation of plague, disease, and unholy death, a dusty, bat-like spawn of Satan that rested his pale skin in a coffin lined with the soil from the Black Plague. This was even before Bela Lugosi’s cock-eyed Count, a gentleman who politely told his prey, “I vant to suck yer blahood,” while reaching a contorted hand out from the lid of his coffin. Many regard Universal’s 1931 gothic horror film Dracula as the original and definitive vampire film. Anytime someone mentions the name Dracula, the face that comes to mind is Lugosi’s curled smile, widow’s peak, and bulging eyes. While Lugosi may be the poster boy for “scary” and “serious” vampires, perhaps the most terrifying vampire of all is Max Shreck’s Count Orlok, the pointy-eared demon who stalked the mortals of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 German Expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu. Alive with a creeping supernatural atmosphere that slowly closes around the viewer, menacing shadow play, and a performance that reigns supreme over all other movie monsters, Murnau’s Nosferatu stands as the greatest interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Real estate agent Thomas Hutter (played by Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent by his boss, Knock (played by Alexander Grannach), to Transylvania to meet with Count Orlok (played by Max Shreck), who has recently purchased a home in the town of Wisborg. Saddened to leave his new wife, Ellen (played by Greta Schroeder), Hutter sets out on a lengthy trip into the country where he meets skittish locals, who all warn of “Nosferatu,” the undead that prowl the woods around Orlok’s castle. Ignoring their warnings, Hutter continues his trip to the castle, but as they get closer, Hutter’s carriage driver gets spooked and refuses to go any further. It doesn’t take long for another carriage to meet Hutter and he is ushered to the front door of the seemingly abandoned castle. Shortly after his arrival, Hutter meets with Count Orlok, a seemingly friendly enough individual who invites Hutter to sit down to a hot meal. As the hours pass within the darkened walls of the castle, Hutter begins to suspect that there may be supernatural forces at play. Meanwhile, Orlok has plans of his own for both Hutter and the new town that is expecting him.
Renamed due to not being able to obtain the rights to Stoker’s novel, Nosferatu is perhaps the most down-to-earth vampire film ever made. There are no undead bloodsuckers morphing into bats or wolves, just a misshapen ghoul with pointy ears and elongated fingers that wanders the empty halls of a dilapidated castle. Vampirism itself is presented as more of an apocalyptic plague rather than a satanic spell, as “plague” rats scatter in the diseased wake of Count Orlok. Every now and then, Murnau suggests that there are unseen supernatural forces at play, especially when Hutter nears Orlok’s secluded dwelling. At first, Murnau just shows animals scurrying about the brush and we get a few shots of what is supposedly a werewolf prowling around looking for prey. Once Hutter is picked up by Orlok’s phantom carriage, a handful of images are presented in the negative, almost like Murnau is ripping the shroud of normalcy off the film itself and showing the supernatural underbelly of the ordinary. He does this again later in film, when he shows us a close up of a spider stalking a tangled insect in its web, a symbolic reference to the spidery Orlok and his helpless prey unable to pull themselves out of his hypnotic web. As far as Orlok goes, the most fantastic aspect about him outside of his striking appearance is how he suddenly appears in front of people, manifesting almost of out thin air.
Then we have Shreck’s hypnotic and measured performance as the dreaded Count Orlok, a monstrous role that could be one of the most iconic in the history of horror. Shreck fills every single movement with malevolence, each rigid twitch of his finger or tilt of his head suggests a very long and hellish life as one of the undead. His fingers curl around like the legs of a spider, at one point jutting out from his waist as he skulks into Hutter’s room for a bloody treat. His ears resemble the ears of a bat and his eyes bulge out of his head, appearing to lack a pupil when viewed through the grainy black and white camera work. Then there are his fangs, which resemble the teeth of a rat as they jut out and hang over his lips. Muranu even compares his physical appearance to that of a Venus flytrap, which he does in a left-field lecture about the plant. There is nothing particularly gentlemanly about him as he hangs in a window and stares out of Ellen, whom he desperately wishes to have his way with. The two share a mesmerizing moment and they are not even in the same shot. Orlok closes in on a sleeping Hutter while Ellen, who is miles away, sees Orlok closing in on her dearly beloved in her nightmare.
While Shreck is actually more of a supporting player rather than top billing, he overshadows every other performer in Nosferatu. Gustav von Wangenheim overacts a bit as Hutter, but you suppose that he has to because he doesn’t have sound to fall back on. He’s the hero of the picture, one that falls victim early on in Orlok’s mansion of madness, but he tries his hardest to prevent the undead evil from spreading his plague. Greta Schroeder’s Ellen possesses a dark side as she suffers from horrific nightmares that cause her to wander the railing of her balcony. Alexander Grannach gets nuts as Knock, Hutter’s employer who snickers with glee over the arrival of his “master.” He has black circles around his eyes and he has a ring of frizzy hair that suggests that he has spent a night or two in the local loony bin. John Gottowt is also present as Professor Bulwer, the man who is basically responsible for pointing out the similarities between Count Orlok and the Venus flytrap.
While the lack of sound may turn many viewers away, those who stick with Nosferatu are in for a terrifying treat. There are a number of sequences that are iconic, especially the sequence aboard a ship that finds Count Orlok slowly picking off the sailors one by one. The sequence culminates in an image that is one of the most blood-curdling moments in horror history. Orlok’s stiff body bursts from a cracked coffin and reveals itself in all its bony glory, only to then make his way to the top deck and stalk the captain. Another sequence that rewards is the final moments of the film, with Orlok locked onto the neck of one of the main characters as the sun slowly shatters the night sky. If the repulsive Orlok doesn’t make you quiver, the seemingly abandoned gothic landscape will certainly make you tense. Atmosphere and architecture become major players in the film, especially the jagged, fang-like homes that comprise the Wiborg skyline and peer into Ellen’s bedroom like jaws waiting to bite into her flesh. Overall, as one of the original monster movies, Nosferatu is a surreal and haunting gothic horror film. The images that Murnau frames are guaranteed to stick with you the rest of your life and Shreck’s performance alone will give you a renewed fear of the dark. Nosferatu will forever remain that greatest and scariest vampire movie ever made.
Nosferatu is available on DVD.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
by Steve Habrat
What an idea it was to produce a film about the making of the 1922 German silent horror film Nosferatu while infusing it with a fictional, supernatural side. E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire is a refined vampire drama that miraculously pulls off this incredibly wild and inspired idea. F.W. Murnau’s original masterpiece is a film that has carried with it rumors of the occult, largely stemming from Murnau’s producer and production designer Albin Grau, who was also an artist, architect, and occultist. Merhige takes these dark aspects of history and uses them to ask us, “What if Nosferatu was made with a REAL vampire?” But Merhige doesn’t stop here; he then transforms his vampire, Max Schreck, into a difficult and greedy star who pushes Murnau to the brink of madness, madness for perfection in his art. Infinitely better than his visually striking but infuriatingly cryptic debut Begotten, Shadow of the Vampire has all its major components (acting, writing, and direction) in synch, creating a clear, concise vision that we can actually wrap our heads around. It seems that maybe Merhige learned that accessible core meanings have just as big of an impression as petrifying images.
Shadow of the Vampire takes us right onto the set of F.W. Murnau’s (Played by John Malkovich) Nosferatu, an unauthorized film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Murnau and his crew have tweaked Stoker’s story ever so slightly, altering names and places so they can still make the film. He drags his crew to places like Slovakia and Poland for on-location shooting, snapping at any crewmember that dares try to make any suggestions or attempt at slightly altering his vision. As filming in Czechoslovakia commences, Murnau’s loyal producer Albin Grau (Played by Udo Kier) and his photographer Wolfgang Mueller (Played by Ronan Vibert) have to consistently keep the eccentric Murnau grounded in reality. Soon, his “method actor” Max Schreck (Played by Willem DaFoe), who is portraying the vampire Count Orlok in the film, arrives to the shoot in full make-up and consistently in character. Murnau tells his impressed crew that Schreck will only mingle with the crew when filming and that he will always appear in character. It turns out that Schreck is actually a real vampire, one who Murnau has made a sinister deal with. Muranu promises Schreck he can feed on their vampy leading actress Greta Schroder (Played by Catherine McCormack) when they are done filming only if Schreck completes his work on the film. As the shoot unfolds, Schreck becomes increasingly difficult, threatening the entire crew and the outcome of the project.
While Shadow of the Vampire sounds like a horror film, it is actually more of a character drama and is often times surprisingly humorous. There are a few chilling moments, mostly a handful of exchanges between Dafoe’s Schreck and Malkovich’s Murnau and the final fifteen minutes. In fact, I would classify the film as more of a drama rather than a full-blown horror film. Shadow of the Vampire is chock full of must-see performances, particularly Dafoe’s transforming turn as Schreck. Much like Klaus Kinski’s unglamorous turn as Count Dracula in Werner Herzog’s faultless 1979 remake Nosferatu the Vampyre, Dafoe makes his vampire a grotesque oddity that is so old he can’t quite recall how he was turned into a vampire. You will be bowled over every time he enters the screen, the highlight moment coming when he snatches a bat out of the air, bites its head off, and then sucks the blood out of it while his eye roll around his skull in ecstasy. Dafoe successfully mutates his character into more of a creature than a man and disappears behind bulging eyes, understated fangs, pasty fake skin, and pointing ears. He really does take on a life of his own.
It may be Dafoe’s show but Malkovich makes damn sure he is remembered long after the credits have rolled. You may emerge talking about Schreck but your conversation will turn to Malkovich’s Murnau. Malkovich makes his determined director out to be pompous and pretentious, demanding but bursting with vision that he can’t quite convey unless he points a camera at something. He is as much a method director as his “star” is a “method actor”, willing to stop at nothing to capture an unmatched realism within his film. He will sacrifice any and all of his crew to achieve this and make something that is remembered for years to come, even running himself into the ground for greatness. Was the real Murnau like this? That is anyone’s guess but it could be said that Murnau did make something that is still popular today, still frightening, and contains one of the greatest performances (Max Schreck’s Count Orlok) ever filmed. Malkovich also gets the film’s best line, coming at the last second of the film.
Compliments should also go to the way Merhige approached the overall look of the film. He mixes German Expressionism, surrealism, black and white, and silent film techniques together to create a consistently alluring piece of cinema. After seeing Begotten, we know that Merhige is a stylish artist, at times getting carried away with the visuals over the story. Here he applies each technique to drive the work forward. He even goes so far to add some footage from the original Nosferatu into Shadow of the Vampire, blending his actors into that specific film. The film could almost double as a film history lesson the way he applies little qualities (gothic atmospheres, use of shadow, intertitles, kaleidoscope images, and even behind-the-scenes Easter eggs) of the genres listed above and it becomes a real treat for cinema fans, allowing them to spot and identify the traits.
All the supporting actors do fine work in Shadow of the Vampire. The best behind Dafoe and Malkovich are Udo Kier’s occultist and producer Albin Grau and Cary Elwes as the replacement photographer Fritz Arno Wagner. Over the years, much has been made over the minor occult touches in Murnau’s Nosferatu, specifically the way he used shadows, which were supposed to symbolize the dark side of reality and occult symbols that were stamped on a document that Count Orlok reads. Well, in shadows lie demons, NOSFERATU, the undead, and what if the undead were really used in the making of the 1922 classic? Shadow of the Vampire is a dramatic and entertaining “what if” that is also a great exploration of method acting and dedication to one’s own art. At least Shadow of the Vampire can spark clear conversation over the bewildered head shaking that Begotten lured out of its viewers. There is nothing to fear in Shadow of the Vampire, only much beauty to drink in and delectable performances to savor.
Shadow of the Vampire is now available on DVD.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
by Steve Habrat
I’m sick of vampires. They are everywhere we turn anymore. They glare from their airbrushed movie posters and the covers of the latest tween romance novel. They have their hair perfectly sculpted on top of their pale domes and they brood while offering just the right amount of sexuality to make the girls wild. To make them more interesting, we’ve had to include werewolves just so they have a story to work with. Damn you, Twilight. To make matters worse, they are about as scary as a male model donning some wax Halloween fangs and whispering boo with all the lights on while standing in the middle of a room. Bela Lugosi is rolling in his grave. Not to fear, boys and ghouls, as I have the remedy for those who want a scary vampire movie. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre is an eerie, earthy, and otherworldly tale that is part remake, part re-envisioning of the Dracula legend. On the surface, this film is supposedly a nod to F.W. Murnau’s legendary 1920’s silent film creep out, but Herzog makes a film that raises the hairs on the back of your neck and overwhelms you with gliding, wide-eyed beauty. Take the rolling shots of shrieking corpses at the beginning of this film. It’s entrancing and grotesque. A true splendor of life and death. I’m also convinced that they are real corpses. Then a swooping shot of a bat, presented in slow motion, so that we may drink in the grace of this barreling predator of the sky. This film is a true work of art in the first five minutes of it’s run time.
To explain the plot would be a waste of time. Most are familiar with the story of Dracula. The eccentric Klaus Kinski plays the bloodsucking demon, a bald, mouth-breathing terror that is spiderlike and pitiful. He’s a lonely soul that relishes hearing the faint howls of “the children of the night”. He creeps about his ruined castle, which may or may not be real, and terrorizes the rational Jonathan (Played by Bruno Ganz). The whole stay at the castle feels like a cloudy nightmare, an aesthetic approach that is used in Herzog’s foggy camerawork and Twilight Zone music. The entire film seems to suggest legend, a myth that comes from nature and is passed from the lips of superstitious peasants. When the film ventures to Varna, it sheds it’s trance like feel and becomes an epidemic terror.
Nosferatu the Vampyre refuses to become supernatural, grounding Dracula in the real world. What if this ghoul existed and he came from the seclusion of the mountains? He is an anti-social fiend that is not suave, sexy, or confidant. He runs about Varna, hiding his coffins in abandoned buildings and hissing at crucifixes. He lurks in the industrial ruins and peers out of windows down on his prey. His cape and coat dancing in the wind. His long claws wrapping around each other like constricting snakes. He speaks slowly and cautiously, choosing his words as carefully as he chooses where to hide his coffins. His eyes dart about his skull, always aware of his surroundings and what his next move will be. Piecing his plans together to spread his plague and bring about the apocalypse.
Herzog makes a melodramatic soap opera; complete with overacting that shows traces of Shakespeare, a trait that was rampant in Universal’s 1931 classic Dracula. Dracula longs for Lucy, who is becoming aware of what the plague truly is. Dracula visits her one evening in her room, a scene that lingers in my head and is one of my favorite sequences in a film in all the history of cinema. He is chivalrous, menacing, and volatile. We see him in the corner of the room, the very edge of the frame, but not visible in Lucy’s mirror. She stares in disbelief, as she resists his advances and subtly vowing that she will destroy him, even if it means death. The shot says so much while lacking copious amounts of dialogue. Jonathan desperately tries to reach Lucy, a man who has fallen ill under the vampiric germ. By the end, he is an evil descendant who is ready to finish what the master has started. Nosferatu the Vampyre is a tragedy, one that ends in the death of Dracula, who dies at the hand of love and infatuation. Lucy sacrifices herself for love and it strangely feels like suicide as well. Who wants to live and love in a world that has gone to Hell? Lucy takes a final walk through the plague riddled street as people dance the dance of death, have their final meals, and celebrate their final moments of joyous life, all while rats scurry about the streets.
A favorite horror film of mine, one that scared me to death the first time I saw it and left me flabbergasted in the wake of it’s beauty, Nosferatu the Vampyre is a blood curdling opera that is the work of an auteur who respects and deeply loves the legend. It offers a fresh take and is worth seeing for it’s artful approach alone. It could and should play in museums while visitors gape at its splendor. It’s slow moving and may repel a few who like their horror fast and bloody. There is very little blood throughout it’s run time. It was released in 1979, though it has aged remarkably well through the years. I’d give anything for this to be released on Blu-ray. I know I’d rush out the day it’s released just to see it in crystal clear high definition. This film is scary, folks. It will creep you out, question what is real and imaginary, and will make you uncomfortable to be by yourself for a while after watching it. Your skin will crawl when you first lay eyes on Kinski’s Dracula and, for my money, he is the best Dracula ever. Lugosi takes a back seat at number two. A must-see for anyone who loves cinema, Nosferatu the Vampyre will make you afraid of vampires again. Just like you should be. Grade: A+