Swarms of pestilent rats. A ghost ship sailing with no one sailing it. The crazy phantom carriage ride and the self-powered casket. And, of course, Max Schreck as the titular nosferatu (Romanian for “vampire,”), all pointy head, pointy nose, pointy rat teeth and horrible long claws. Just a few of the memorable (some would say iconic) visuals from Nosferatu, the first vampire movie ever made—nine years before the 1931 Tod Browning version of the Dracula tale that made a star out of Bela Lugosi.
But still the single best thing about seeing Nosferatu is the knowledge that we almost never got to see it all—at least those of us who weren’t Germans of moviegoing age in 1922. The longest-lived vampire classic in the history of the genre almost didn’t survive its initial release. Even with the word “Dracula” excised from the original title, Nosferatu ran afoul of Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, who successfully sued the filmmakers for blatant theft of her husband’s story and succeeded in having confiscated and destroyed almost every print of the film. Luckily for us, a few managed to survive.
So when you see it, savor it. There have been newer, slicker, sexier and more faithful film adaptations of the Stoker novel and variations on its characters—hundreds of them, in fact—but very few with the striking visual quality of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1922 classic.
Technically, Nosferatu was quite a marvel at the time, particularly in its use of lighting, negative film and dissolves. Some of the special effects look downright hokey today, but seriously—a lot of it was shockingly sophisticated back in its day. Much of the film was shot on location with cumbersome crank-operated cameras—also rather daring, considering one of the locations was a ship.
Murnau and his writers also took some bold liberties with their source material. For example, Nosferatu was the first film to advance the notion that sunlight killed vampires. Parts of the film are confusing because the fearsome Graf Orlok appears to be wandering around in broad daylight completely unfazed; this is because shooting dark exterior shots was a daunting technical obstacle then and the filmmakers had to resort to other means to convey what the cinematographer couldn’t. Original prints were tinted blue to indicate night, something lost to surviving prints for decades but recently restored to re-released DVD and laserdisc versions.
Murnau’s vampire, played by Max Schreck, is also probably the most loathsome horror figure ever committed to film. Some theorize that Murnau deliberately exaggerated certain “Semitic” features of his Graf Orlok to play on German fears of Jews and Eastern European immigrants. Whether or not you believe Graf Orlok played some deeper role in 1920s German social conditioning, you have to admit he’s pretty horrific to look upon. Unlike Draculas to come, Graf Orlok was not a suave, charming kind of vampire who imbued the relationship of predator and prey with at least the promise of erotic love. Where Bela Lugosi’s Dracula brings the proverbial kiss before dying, Schreck’s Graf Orlok literally brings the plague to Bremen!
To complicate matters, the vampire’s victims don’t die immediately after he bites them, as they would in vampire movies to come. They become weaker and weaker with each attack, making Orlok even more of an abhorrent parasite, and reiterating the idea of death feeding off the living. Life versus death, beauty and the beast; these are some universal themes, here, exquisitely rendered.
If you’ve never seen this dusty diamond, let yourself be tempted a little more: Nosferatu has always been a popular revival-house hit, especially when accompanied by live music. If this experience has thus far eluded you, here’s your chance: Missoula gets its turn this weekend, when self-described “New Wave nerd jockeys” Volumen give it a go. The Independent caught up with Volumen-1, aka Shane Hickey, who filled us in on some of the difficult particulars of composing an original score for the film.
“This project has turned out to be probably the toughest thing I have worked on,” Hickey tells us. “It seems so tough because the very nature of our band runs contrary to good soundtrack music. We’re all about making our songs as catchy—sometimes infuriatingly catchy—as possible. It seems like in order to be good soundtrack music you really don’t want to get noticed at all. All you want to do is enhance the mood.”
“We started out designing one to two themes for each character and trying to work with that,” he continues. “And we learned that it wasn’t nearly enough music. So now we’ve worked out different themes for different situations and characters.”
Did they glean any inspiration from previous soundtracks, which have run the gamut from organ music to free jazz to the goth metal of Type O Negative?
“There’s a lot places on the soundtrack where the music just doesn’t make any sense. It just sounds like a bunch of weird jazz people jamming, and sometimes they’ll establish a cool theme and stick with it. We pretty much threw out all that stuff except Renfield’s theme, which is rockin’. So we bent that one a little and then started from scratch.”
Volumen will provide live accompaniment for a screening of Nosferatu this Saturday at the New Crystal Theatre, 11 PM. $4. Yamoo, featuring Chris Robertson, will provide an alternate soundtrack for the regular Sunday 2 PM screening. $3
Older still than Nosferatu are the films of Edwin Thanhouser, five of which will be presented this weekend at the historic Wilma Theatre. Thanhouser and his wife Gertrude founded the Thanhouser Company, a New Rochelle, N.Y.-based film concern that produced and released over a thousand films between 1909 and 1918. Of that staggering quantity, only 187 individual prints have ever been found, including a rare copy of The Evidence of the Film, which turned up last year on the floor of a Superior, Mont., projection booth. New Thanhouser films continue to be discovered all the time, however, and currently a dozen volatile nitrate prints await restoration and conversion to safety prints.
In addition to the 14-minute Evidence of the Film, the other four titles that will be shown this weekend are as follows:
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912): Thanhouser’s was the second of at least nine silent versions of the original Robert Louis Stevenson “shilling shocker,” made all the more sensational by Richard Mansfield’s stage performance. Thanhouser’s version plays down the horror element, focusing instead on the good-evil duality of the protagonist’s personality.
The Cry of the Children (1912): The most famous and best-documented of the Thanhouser films. An important work of the pre-WWII reformist movement, the political content of the film eclipsed at the time what is today generally regarded as an artistic masterpiece.
A Dog’s Love (1914): The universal appeal of child-and-dog friendship is depicted with pictorial beauty and simple, honest sentiment.
Get Rich Quick (1911): Another staple of early film, the moral tale, this Thanhouser production examines the quest for material wealth and its casualties, in this particular case how an elaborate swindle, the “Utopia Investment Corporation” affects one of its participants.
Thanhouser’s films will be screened at the Wilma Theatre on Friday at 7:30 PM, and again on Saturday at 2 and 7:30 PM. Ned Thanhouser, grandson of company founders Edwin and Gertrude, will be on hand to speak. Olympia, Wash., organist Andy Crow will accompany the films on the Wilma’s pipe organ. Tickets for each showing are $6/adults, $4/students and seniors.