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.
by Steve Habrat
When looking back at the history of the horror film, one of the most essential early entries in the genre is director Robert Wiene’s classic silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Most people are familiar with Wiene’s German Expressionist masterpiece, even if they are not necessarily aware that they are. While some have surely stumbled across one of the many famous images from this surreal horror tale, most have been exposed to the mind-bending visuals through Rob Zombie’s music video for “Living Dead Girl,” which was essentially a condensed remake that starred Zombie and his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Credited as the film that kicked off the German Expressionist movement and single handedly created the twist ending, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a singular work that is alive with insanity and chilling in its dreamlike set design. It’s brimming with gothic points, ghostly performances, and a climax that will most certainly divide viewers. Over the years, the film’s writers have claimed that the story was based around a real life murder that occurred in 1913, and many critics have pointed out that the film is a product of the violence and confusion that gripped post-WWI Germany. One thing that is undeniable is that Wiene grabs you by the hair and rips you down the rabbit hole of insanity, and then leaves you to wander that shadows and alleyways that consistently threaten to rob you of your own grip on reality.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari begins with two men, Francis (played by Friedrich Fehér) and an elderly gentleman, sitting on a park bench when a woman in blinding white wanders past them. As it turns out, this woman is Jane (played by Lil Dagover), Francis’ fiancé with whom he shares a particularly chilling experience. The film then flashes back a few years to the German village of Holstenwall, where Francis lives with his good friend Alan (played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Despite the fact that they both are in love with Jane, Francis and Alan decide to attend a carnival. While exploring the scene, the two friends stumble upon a sideshow act run by Dr. Caligari (played by Werner Krauss), who shouts about Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who slumbers in what appears to be a coffin-like cabinet. Dr. Caligari explains that Cesare can see the future and then encourages any brave soul in the crowd to step right up and ask the somnambulist a question. Alan volunteers and asks Cesare how long he will live. The slumbering Cesare awakens and warns Alan that he will be dead by dawn. The next day, Alan is discovered murdered, which immediately makes Francis suspicious of Dr. Caligari and Cesare. Francis alerts the authorities, but the next night, there is another attempted murder. Authorities arrest a small-time criminal, who denies having anything to do with Alan’s murder. Confused and desperate, Francis and the authorities race to find evidence that Dr. Caligari and Cesare are the ones responsible for Alan’s death but their quest to find the killer will lead them to a shocking discovery.
Right from the start, it isn’t hard to tell that something is off about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The text titles appear to the viewer as though they were scribbled by a madman and then decorated with his construction paper creations inspired by his nighttime hallucinations. At times, they seem to be contorting into faces or crosses, the cryptic images of a severely disturbed mind. Francis appears hunched over with dark circles around his eyes, huddled up next to the elderly gentleman who rambles on about spirits being all around them. Seemingly out of nowhere wanders Jane, who appears like a specter that has wandered out of a graveyard just off frame. You half believe that Jane is one of the spirits that the elderly man whispers about, but then Francis begins his spine-tingling tale. From here, Wiene really unleashes the funhouse visuals on the viewer. The characters all wander a village that looks like the brainchild of Salvador Dali if he spent too much time in a graveyard sipping on a glass of absinthe. Windows look like they are melting to the floor, lights twist out of stone like metal snakes, and gothic buildings shoot every which way like thorns on a rose. All of the sets are then plunged into heavy atmospheric shadows that make Holstenwall look like Hell on earth. There isn’t a frame that Wiene doesn’t play up this unforgettable set design, holding a shot long enough for us to in this psychotic dream world brought to life by Hermann Warm. Just to make things creepier, Wiene uses color filters, rich orange to suggest the comfort of late afternoon, or hypnotic blue to imply the bewitching glow of moonlight.
Wandering this prickly maze is one of silent horror’s most recognizable monsters next Max Shreck’s rat-faced Count Orlok and Lon Chaney’s pig-like Phantom. That monster would be Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, the slinky somnambulist salve of Dr. Caligari. Donning a pitch-black body suit, a pasty face, and black circles scribbled around his eyes, Cesare nabs the film’s best and most dramatic scare moment. Wiene cuts to a close up of Cesare as Dr. Caligari coaxes him from his slumber. His eyeballs push against his sealed eyelids when suddenly they pop open with fiendish cognizance. He scans the crowd for a man or woman brave enough to face him, slowly turning his neck to face Alan, whose courageousness is diminishing by the second. It is perhaps the most terrifying moment in the entire film. Close behind it is the sequence where Cesare is sent after Jane in the dead of night. Cesare watches her for a moment, only to slink through the window like a shadow and glide right up to her bed. Jane awakens from her deep sleep and stares directly into the face of a ghoul, who responds to her screams by curling his black lips back into what appears to be a smile, one that screams evil. Just watching Veidt creep along the streets with careful footsteps is enough to give anyone nightmares, especially when you marvel at the otherworldly precision with which he maneuvers through the night.
While the supporting Veidt steals the film in his handful of scenes, the supporting acts are the furthest thing from ordinary. Krauss is equally frightening as the squat Dr. Caligari, who peers out at the citizens of Holstenwall through black make-up accentuating the lines of his face. Hidden behind a top hat and glasses, he scowls like Ebenezer Scrooge at anyone who dares point a finger of accusation his way, and an insidious grin spreads across his face as he shovels spoonful after spoonful of slop into Cesare’s mouth. Lil Dagover’s ghostly Jane wonders the film as if she is in a trance, a chiaroscuro spirit who is dragged over the rooftops by Cesare in one of the most iconic sequences of the entire film. Hans Heinrich von Twardowski is good-natured as the jolly Alan, who is game to play along with what he believes is a sideshow farce. Friedrich Fehér rounds out the cast as Francis, the hero of our story who doesn’t appear to have the handle on reality that he believes he does. In a way, he is almost like a detective the way he hurries along looking for any clue to help solve his friend’s murder.
The most controversial aspect of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is easily the twist ending, which some may view as a bit of a cheat. There is no doubt in my mind that in 1920, this tacked on surprise left many audience members with their jaws on the floor. I am one that falls into the camp of thinking that the twist is a bit unnecessary, as it washes away the flavor of the events that preceded it. At the time the film was made, the producers believed that the original conclusion was too disturbing, so they encouraged Wiene to shoot a more accessible finale. However, despite this minor complaint, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is still a film unlike any other. There are stretches were you forget you’re watching a silent film and there are images that you could freeze-frame and hang on your living room wall. Whether you’re a fan of cinema or just a casual moviegoer, you owe it to yourself to check out this significant and surreal work of art. Make it a double feature with F.W. Murnau’s Expressionist classic Nosferatu. Your dreams may never be the same.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available on DVD.
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.