by Jay Seaver
SCREENED WITH LIVE MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT BY DEVIL MUSIC ENSEMBLE: You know what I hate about most vampire movies? That they make the vampires sex symbols. Please. Sex is a life-giving process, whereas vampires are walking corpses that drink the lifeblood of others, but are laid low by religious icons and the rays of the sun, the ultimate source of all life. They're death. The way I figure it, the more ugly and cadaverous they make vampires, the better. So, it's probably no surprise when I say that "Nosferatu" is the greatest vampire movie ever made.Nosferatu is, infamously, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, with the action transposed to Germany. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), an apprentice estate agent, is dispatched to Transylvania to conduct some business with the reclusive Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Orlok, a bald, pale character with long fingernails, pointed teeth, and a demonic visage, has some bizarre sleeping habits, and the local villagers won't come near his castle. He takes an interest in Hutter's wife Ellen (Greta Schroeder), and soon is on his way to his new home. Death follows in his wake.
"One of the few vampire movies that remembers that they're WALKING DEATH."
Germany was not in good shape when director F.W. Murnau and company made Nosferatu - the period after World War I was economically devastating - and though the film is set in an earlier time period, everybody seems poor: Hutters needs the money this commission would provide, his employer Knock (Alexander Granach) doesn't look to be in much better shape, and even the supposedly wealthy Orlok, due to his vampiric nature, lives alone in a dusty, unlit, and dreary place, when someone of his rank would normally have servants. The ship he hires to bring him across the North Sea is infested with rats even before he boards. Orlock is not merely a supernatural horror; he's a personification of the malaise upon the country.
He's plenty horrifying, though. He's a walking corpse, and though he appears weak and infirm, he's got a certain power to him. Not the sexual charisma that most later screen vampires would carry, but a cloud of death. We only see him for ten of the movies eighty or ninety minutes, but Schreck projects a certain persistence along the decrepitude: Orlok is old, weak, and occasionally foolish-looking, but he's not a doddering old man; he has outlived anybody who would challenge his will, and his quiet stare makes it clear that that may just be a more repeatable skill than one might normally consider it to be. Meanwhile, agents of death surround him - plagues of rats, disease, and madness appear out of nowhere even while he rests in his coffin. If you find Orlok sexy, you've got problems.
Murnau gets the maximum effect from Henrik Galeen's script and Albin Grau's production design. He uses some crude but sufficient special effects to keep the supernatural forward in the audience's minds, and intersperses cold, barren establishing shots to keep them ill at ease. Every single shot of the film serves as a reminder that something as evil as Orlok may initially look easily beaten, but is determined and more powerful than it appears. Even if few of the performances aside from Schreck's are memorable, Murnau and the rest of the crew were pretty darn great at stringing shots together.
Doing a soundtrack to Nosferatu is apparently a rite of passage for those who would accompany silent films; for Halloween, the Coolidge booked the Devil Music Ensemble, which has in its brief history been everything from a rock n' roll threesome to a 40-piece orchestra. For Nosferatu, they were closer to the former, with three musicians on (at various points) synthesizer, electric guitar, electric violin, drums, and percussion. They provide an exciting, fast-paced score that makes the film seem much more active than it might otherwise seem.Which is helpful; as beautiful and frightening as the film is, it does take a while to get going. It's still the best "Dracula" ever done, though, even if it couldn't be called that at first.
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originally posted: 01/09/06 00:03:28