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.
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+
by Steve Habrat
Here we are, boys and ghouls! We have made it to my top 10 scariest movies of all time. I hope I have introduced you to a few horror movies you haven’t seen or heard of and tackled a few of your favorites as well. So without further ado, these are my top 10 favorite horror films that have curdled my blood, given me goose bumps, made me a little uneasy to turn out my bedside lamp at night, and made me consider shutting the films off.
10.) The Evil Dead (1981)
The ultimate sleepover horror flick! With a budget barely over $375,000 and a handful of no name actors, first time director Sam Raimi tore onto the directorial scene with The Evil Dead, a gruesome little supernatural horror film that follows a group of teens as the travel to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of drinking a few beers and hooking up. Once secluded in the cabin, they stumble upon a book called, naturally, The Book of the Dead, and they, of course, read from it. The book just so happens to release an ancient force that possess all who stand in its way, turning the teens into bloodthirsty, demonic zombies. Stopping to consider the budget, the special effects here are a true marvel, even if they are dated and the sound effects will give your goose bumps more goose bumps. While Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness descended into campville one of the most amazing parts of The Evil Dead is the fact that it refuses to offer any comedic relief. The most grueling aspect of the film is that by the end, our hero Ash has to face the terror all by his lonesome. Absolutely unyielding once it gets moving and savagely in-your-face, The Evil Dead will without question fry your nerves.
9.) Suspira (1977)
Italian director Dario Argento created perhaps one of the most visually striking horror films to date. Suspira is scary decked out in bright neon colors. Following a young American woman who is accepted to a prestigious ballet school in Europe where it may or may not be under the control of witches is the real deal. The film begins with easily one of the most intense murder sequences ever filmed and it should almost be criminal with how well Argento builds tension and suspense within it. While mostly scaring you through supernatural occurrences and basically becoming a mystery film, Suspira leaves its mark with images that sear in well-lit rooms. Nothing ever happens in the dark in this film, and usually its what we do not see that is the scariest. And to deny the fact that this film is a breath of fresh air to the horror genre would be utterly absurd. The best advice I can give is just wait until the end of the film. You will be left pinned to your seat.
8.) Psycho (1960)
When it comes to unforgettable movie monsters, give me Norman Bates over Freddy or Jason any day. Everyone is familiar with what is perhaps the most famous and scariest of all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, this film literally could be the closest to perfect that any motion picture will get. The score is unforgettable. It breaks the rules by killing off its main star in the first forty minutes. It keeps you guessing until the very end. It WILL terrify you by its sudden outbursts of brutal violence. And seriously, who is not familiar with the shower sequence? Still not convinced? See it simply for Anthony Perkin’s performance as mama’s boy Norman Bates. I guarantee he will find his way into your nightmares. Remarkably, the film lacks all the crows’ feet of aging as it still manages to be one of the scariest horror of personality films to date. While it was needlessly remade in 1998 to disappoint results, the original is a true classic in literally every way. Psycho breaks all the rules of horror, and leaves the viewer disoriented and wowed all at once.
7.) Straw Dogs (1971)
Never heard of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 home invasion film Straw Dogs? Well, you have now and you have no excuse not to see it. As an added bonus, it stars Dustin Hoffman! I noticed that on many of your favorite horror films that you have sent me, you listed the 2008 film The Strangers. While The Strangers is creepy, Straw Dogs is flat out gritty, unrepentant viciousness. A nerdy math professor and his wife move out to the British countryside where they are looking to enjoy a simple life of peace and quite. Their pursuit of happiness falls short when the couple becomes the victims to bullying by the locals. The bullying soon boils up to a vicious rape and an attack on the couple’s home that leads to one hell of a nail-bitting standoff. Many consider it a thriller, but this is flat out horror in my book. The film becomes an exploration of the violence in all of us. Yes, even the ones we least expect. We never see the violence coming from the mild mannered math teacher. Even worse, it leaves us with the unshakeable notion that this horrendous violence lurks in all of us. Another great quality of the film is the fact that it will spark conversations after viewing it. What would you do in that situation? Would you allow yourself to be the victim or would you stand up and fight for what is yours? Sound simple? Straw Dogs is far from simple. It will etch itself into your mind.
6.) Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Nosferatu is on here twice?!?! Sort of. Nosferatu indeed deserves its place among the greats but Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre is without question the greatest vampire movie of all time. It drives a silver dagger right through the heart of all the vampire flicks out there (Take that Twilight!). Part remake, part valentine to F.W. Murnau, part Dracula; this is an undeniably sweeping horror film. Who would have believed that a slow motion image of a bat could make the hair on your arms stand up? Elegant and astonishing beautiful, one could recommend the film on the cinemamatogrphy alone. This interpretation of Nosferatu abandons the name Count Orlok and instead is Count Dracula. The appearance of Count Dracula is almost identical to Count Orlok but the rest plays out like Dracula. The film features what could be one of the most mesmerizing performances ever caught on film with Klaus Kinski’s interpretation of Count Dracula. He is at once heart breaking and threatening. The film’s apocalyptic images are spellbinding. The score is the stuff that nightmares are made of. The acting is top notch. The scares are slight and real. This is the scariest vampire movie ever and one of the most underrated horror movies ever made.
5.) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The glaring problem with the 2003 remake of this disturbing 1974 classic is that the 2003 remake was more concerned with being a sleek experience rather than a gritty and realistic slasher flick. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre does a fantastic job making you feel the Texas heat, as this movie is an absolute scorcher. On top of that, the film uses surprisingly little gore and still manages to gross you out to the point of you seriously considering becoming a vegan. What makes the film so traumatic is the fact that it does not only contain one monster, it has several. There is basically no escape from the dreaded, chainsaw wielding Leatherface and his merry band of cannibals. The film also throws another monkey wrench into the equation: one of the main characters is in a wheelchair. Yikes! The final chase of the film seems like it was ripped right out of an old newsreel and it has such a realistic tone that the atmosphere actually overrides the horrific murders. I recently read a quote from Stephen King about his favorite horror films and I have to admit that I heavily agree with him. He says “One thing that seems clear to me, looking back at the ten or a dozen films that truly scared me, is that most really good horror films are low-budget affairs with special effects cooked up in someone’s basement or garage.” If this quote applies to any horror film, it would be Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Amen, Mr. King!
4.) The Shining (1980)
As far as supernatural horror movies are concerned, Stanley Kubrick’s version of the Stephen King book The Shining is the first and last word in haunted house movies. Combining hallucinatory images, a mind-bending story, and a horror of personality all into one Frankenstein’s monster of a film. Kubrick tops it all of with a big bloody bow. Jack Nicholson is at his bat-shit crazy best as Jack Torrence, a seemingly normal writer who, along with his family, are employed as the winter caretakers at the secluded Overlook Hotel. With the hotel cutoff from customers, the ghosts start coming out to play. They posses Jack’s young son Danny (REDRUM!). They torment Jack to the point where he grabs an axe and goes on a killing spree. If you have not seen this, see it just on the grounds of Jack Nicholson’s outstanding portrayal of a man slipping into homicidal madness. It is probably one of the most epic horror movies I’ve ever seen, and one of the most visually jarring. I really do not think there is anything creepier than twin girls standing in the center of a long hallway and inviting Danny to “come play with” them. The Shining leaves the viewer to figure it all out at the end. But damn does it end with some blood soaked fireworks.
3.) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero’s follow up to his 1968 zombie freak out wears the king’s crown in the land of zombie movies. This one has it all, folks. It’s dismal, gory beyond anything you could ever imagine, intelligent, shocking, and freaky as all hell. Picking up right where Night of the Living Dead left off, we are thrust into a world of chaos. I will warn you that the first half hour or so of the film is so overwhelming; you may need to take an intermission after it just to gather yourself. Romero is launching an all out assault on the viewer, testing them to see how much they are able to take. But he hasn’t even gotten going yet. Hell, the opening is actually tame compared to the gut-wrenching climax. Romero does lighten the mood a little in places because the film would be unbearable if he never did. The plot centers on four survivors who flee from war-torn Pittsburgh to an indoor shopping mall to escape the panic that has seized hold of America. This panic, of course, comes in the wake of the dead returning to life and eating the flesh of the living. They live like kings and queens in the land of consumerism, which also leads to their ultimate downfall. Greed takes hold and soon the army of zombies gathering outside is the least of their concerns. Featuring some of the most heart stopping violence to ever be thought up and some truly tense moments, Dawn of the Dead may actually cause you to have a heart attack or, at the very least, a panic attack.
2.) Hellraiser (1987)
If demonic horror scares you, then you are going to want to stay far, far away from Clive Baker’s Hellraiser. What sights the soul ripping Cenobites have to show you. What ghastly sights indeed. Bursting at the seams with some of the most unsettling images that any horror film has to offer, Hellraiser simply has it all. It has monsters for the monster crowd. It shows glimmers of the slasher genre. It satisfies the gore hounds thirst for blood. It offers up a wickedly original storyline. Following a man who ends up possessing a box that can expose you to the greatest pleasures imaginable is a pretty unnerving experience. There’s a dead guy in the attic that an unfaithful wife has to provide with male bodies so he can regenerate. There are four time traveling demons that rip apart their victims with chains. A daughter is desperately trying to unravel her father’s death. Did I mention it has lots and lots of monsters? The best part of seeing the first film in the Hellraiser series is that you get to see the Cenobites, who could very well be some of the creepiest antagonists that have ever haunted a horror film. They slink through the shadows and send icy chills up your spine. When Pinhead, or “Lead Cenobite” proclaims that they are “Angels to some and demons to others”, he is not kidding. Are they the four horsemen of the apocalypse, given the films left-field apocalyptic ending? Could be. Undeniably vicious and oddly hypnotic, the film will scare the living daylights out of you and replace those daylights with the darkness of Hell.
1.) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
During the class that I took on the horror genre in college, we discussed that the scariest movies of all are the ones that posse an unwavering realism. I seriously think that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the embodiment of this argument. Raw, powerful, disturbing, and a searing knock out, this is without question the most terrifying film I have ever seen. You will be locking your doors and possibly adding another lock for extra good measure. The plot of the film centers on Henry who is soft-spoken exterminator who also happens to be a serial killer. Henry happens to be staying with his friend Otis, who is currently on probation and works at a gas station and also sells pot on the side. Otis has also allowed his sister Becky, who is a stripper looking for a new start in Chicago, to shack up with the two bachleors. Soon, Otis learns of Henry’s grotesque hobby and quickly decides he wants in. Henry takes him under his devil wings and the two descend into the night to prey on innocent victims. The uncanny, fly-on-the-wall vérité approach elevates the film to the territory of the unbearable. Every explosive murder is chillingly real. Every line of sadistic dialogue is muttered in a disconnected tone. The film also chills you to the bone because there is never a character to truly root for, a character to take comfort in. The closest we get to a hero is Becky, but mostly because we fear for her safety. We know she is incapable of stopping the maniacs. While the violence will shock you, and trust me it is some absolutely grisly stuff, the fear of the violence and unpredictability of it all will wear away and you will be left with the fear that this could actually happen. There are actually people out there who could be capable of doing this, and I could be next if I just so happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a masterpiece of the horror genre and it will leave you thinking about it for weeks.
I hope all of our readers out there have enjoyed our 31 days of Halloween special- Anti-Film School’s Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular- and will come back next year for more horror, thrills, and chills. I have personally had a blast doing this as Halloween is my favorite holiday and has been since I was in a diaper. Enjoy the next few days of horror movie posts and the review our readers chose. Have a terrifying Halloween, boys and ghouls! I know I will.