Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Nosferatu

Nosferatu (1922), the wellspring that started it all, an early example of German Expressionism in film, one of the first adaptations of Dracula (albeit, an unauthorized version), and a movie that still influences our perception of vampires, poses a challenge to me in reviewing it. I can appreciate its impact on both the genre and cinema in general and recognize the iconic status of some of its scenes and style, but frankly, I find it a chore to get through. It's an important movie, and I would go so far as to call it required viewing for fans of the genre and students of film as art, but I have trouble staying awake when I watch it.

The story retains the basic elements of Dracula but condenses some things and changes other things, most notably the names. Count Dracula is now Count Orlock, Harker is now Hutter, Mina is Ellen, and Van Helsing is Bulwer (although my DVD refers to them by their Dracula names. More on the DVD later). In this version, Hutter is sent by his boss Knock (aka Renfield) to Transylvania to the castle of Count Orlock, who wishes to purchase property in Wisborg, right across from Hutter's own home. Hutter leaves his beloved Ellen behind, but when he arrives at the castle, he discovers the count is a hideous vampire who makes Hutter his prisoner. Soon, Orlock heads to Wisborg. His target: Ellen.

Vampires have proven to one of the more versatile of movie monsters. They can be suave and seductive, feral and zombie-like, tragic, romantic, funny, scary, mysterious, predatory, reluctant, and any number of other descriptions. Here, Orlock is not the exotic foreigner like Lugosi, the anti-hero Lestat, or the teen pinup Edward Cullen; he's unapologetically, unambiguously a monster. Both in appearance and actions, he is ugly; with his pointed ears, bald head, and fangs where his two front teeth should be, Orlock looks very much like a rat. He lives and thrives in the shadows, a figure associated with death and disease (he brings plague-carryin rats with him).

Today, horror movies are built on realism: are the special effects convincing, do the characters behave like real people we can relate to, does the plot make sense, etc.? Director F.W. Murnau crafts what can be described as  a surreal, fantasy atmosphere, and it doesn't feel like reality. He uses a lot of shadows, dissolves, and iris shots, and the result is something that feels very dream-like. And in this world, where we feel vulnerable and ill-at-ease, a phantom can easily move about.

Nosferatu has a number of standout moments that if they still don't possess the power to shock and terrify, then they still retain an impressive creep factor: the crewman of the ship descending into the bowels of the ship where Orlock rises out of his casket, Hutter lying in bed as Orlock descends the hallway toward him, and Ellen feeling the clasp of Orlock's claw (shown only in shadow) over her heart while he ascends the stairs toward. Cool stuff, and Max Shreck, the actor playing Orlock, really knows how to sell the role.

The not-so-cool stuff stems from the fact this movie is more than ninety years old. I hate to say the word "dated;" movies, as much as any art form, are products of the time they were made in, and I always try to keep that in mind when I watch older movies, but man, this Silent-Era acting of the human characters is silly, distracting, and often nonsensical. The inter-titles (which remain on screen way too long, a pet peeve of mine with silent films) contain such gems as "Wait, young man. You cannot escape destiny by running away," and "Is this your wife? What a lovely throat."

The other problem, that I'm not sure I can blame on the movie itself, is the music. The original orchestral score by Hans Erdmann was lost, according to Wikipedia, and depending on what version you have, you get a different score. My version had this repetitious, grating organ sound that sounded like it was playing on a loop, and it sounded the same no matter the context of the scene. It really got annoying. My DVD also seems to have botched the transfer job; because of the limitations of the technology of the time, films then were shot day-for-night, but this DVD doesn't have the filters used to suggest darkness, so night and day look exactly the same.

Nosferatu is a movie I'd recommend for those with the interest and patience for classic horror cinema and to those who are vampire completists. For those looking for entertainment, look elsewhere.

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