Nosferatu: F

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Nosferatu: F.W. Murnau
To watch F.W. Murnau's ``Nosferatu'' (1922) is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself. Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in cliches, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and more than 30 other films. The film is in awe of its material. It seems to really believe in vampires.
Max Schreck, who plays the vampire, avoids most of the theatrical touches that would distract from all the later performances, from Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee to Frank Langella to Gary Oldman. The vampire should come across not like a flamboyant actor but like a man suffering from a dread curse. Schreck plays the count more like an animal than a human being; the art direction by Murnau's collaborator, Albin Grau, gives him bat ears, clawlike nails and fangs that are in the middle of his mouth like a rodent's, instead of on the sides like on a Halloween mask.
Murnau's silent film was based on the Bram Stoker novel, but the title and character names were changed because Stoker's widow charged, not unreasonably, that her husband's estate was being ripped off. Ironically, in the long run Murnau was the making of Stoker, because ``Nosferatu'' inspired dozens of other Dracula films, none of them as artistic or unforgettable, although Werner Herzog's 1979 version with Klaus Kinski comes closest.
``Nosferatu'' is a better title, anyway, than ``Dracula.'' Say ``Dracula'' and you smile. Say ``Nosferatu'' and you've eaten a lemon. Murnau's story begins in Bremen, Germany. Knock (Alexander Granach), a simian little real estate agent, assigns his employee Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) to visit the remote castle of Count Orlok, who wishes to buy a house in town--"a deserted one." A clue to the story can be found in Orlok's letter, which we see over Knock's shoulder. It is written in occult symbols; since Knock can read it, we should not be surprised later when he calls Orlok ``Master.''
During Hutter's trip to Orlok's lair in the Carpathian Mountains, Murnau's images foretell doom. In an inn, all of the customers fall silent when Hutter mentions Orlok's name. Outside, horses bolt and run, and a hyena snarls before slinking away. At Hutter's bedside, he finds a book that explains vampire lore: They must sleep, he learns, in earth from the graveyards of the Black Death.
Hutter's hired coach refuses to take him onto Orlok's estate. The count sends his own coach, which travels in fast-motion, as does his servant, who scurries like a rat. Hutter is still laughing at warnings of vampirism, but his laugh fades at dinner, when he cuts himself with a bread knife and the count seems unhealthily interested in ``Blood--your beautiful blood!''
Two of the key sequences in the film now follow; both are montages in which simultaneous events are intercut. That's a routine technique today, but Murnau is credited with helping to introduce the montage, and here we see Orlok advancing on Hutter while, in Bremen, his wife, Ellen, sleepwalks and cries out a warning that causes the vampire to turn away. (He advances and retreats through an archway shaped to frame his batlike head.) Later, after Hutter realizes his danger, he escapes from the castle and races back to Bremen by coach, while Orlok travels by sea, and Murnau intercuts the coach with shipboard events and Ellen restlessly waiting.
The shots on the ship are the ones everyone remembers. The cargo is a stack of coffins, all filled with earth (from the nourishing graveyards of the plague). Crew members sicken and die. A brave mate goes below with a hatchet to open a coffin, and rats tumble out. Then Count Orlok rises straight up, stiff and eerie, from one of the coffins, in a shot that was as frightening and famous in its time as the rotating head in ``The Exorcist.'' The ship arrives in port with its crew dead, and the hatch opens by itself.
Murnau now inserts scenes with little direct connection to the story, except symbolically. One involves a scientist who gives a lecture on the venus flytrap, ``the vampire of the vegetable kingdom.'' Then Knock, in a jail cell, watches in closeup as a spider devours its prey. Why cannot man likewise be a vampire? Knock senses his Master has arrived, escapes, and scurries about the town with a coffin on his back. As fear of the plague spreads, ``the town was looking for a scapegoat,'' the titles say, and Knock creeps about on rooftops and is stoned, while the street is filled with dark processions of the coffins of the newly dead.
Ellen Hutter learns that the only way to stop a vampire is for a good woman to distract him so that he stays out past the first cock's crow. Her sacrifice not only saves the city but also reminds us of the buried sexuality in the Dracula story. Bram Stoker wrote with ironclad 19th century Victorian values, inspiring no end of analysis from readers who wonder if the buried message of Dracula might be that unlicensed sex is dangerous to society. The Victorians feared venereal disease the way we fear AIDS, and vampirism may be a metaphor; the predator vampire lives without a mate, stalking his victims or seducing them with promises of bliss--like a rapist, or a pickup artist. The cure for vampirism is obviously not a stake through the heart, but nuclear families and bourgeois values.
Is Murnau's ``Nosferatu'' scary in the modern sense? Not for me. I admire it more for its artistry and ideas, its atmosphere and images, than for its ability to manipulate my emotions like a skillful modern horror film. It knows none of the later tricks of the trade, like sudden threats that pop in from the side of the screen. But ``Nosferatu'' remains effective: It doesn't scare us, but it haunts us. It shows not that vampires can jump out of shadows, but that evil can grow there, nourished on death.
In a sense, Murnau's film is about all of the things we worry about at 3 in the morning--cancer, war, disease, madness. It suggests these dark fears in the very style of its visuals. Much of the film is shot in shadow. The corners of the screen are used more than is ordinary; characters lurk or cower there, and it's a rule of composition that tension is created when the subject of a shot is removed from the center of the frame. Murnau's special effects add to the disquieting atmosphere: the fast motion of Orlok's servant, the disappearance of the phantom coach, the manifestation of the count out of thin air, the use of a photographic negative to give us white trees against a black sky.
Murnau (1888-1931) made 22 films but is known mostly for three masterpieces: ``Nosferatu''; ``The Last Laugh'' (1924), with Emil Jannings as a hotel doorman devastated by the loss of his job, and ``Sunrise'' (1927), which won Janet Gaynor an Oscar for her work as a woman whose husband considers murdering her. The worldwide success of ``Nosferatu'' and ``The Last Laugh'' won Murnau a Hollywood contract with Fox, and he moved to America in 1926. His last film was ``Tabu'' (1931); he was killed in a car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway just before its premiere, his promising career cut short at 43.
If he had lived, the rest of his career would have been spent making sound films. He probably would have made some great ones. But with a silent like ``The Last Laugh,'' he famously did not require a single title card to tell his story. And ``Nosferatu'' is more effective for being silent. It is commonplace to say that silent films are more ``dreamlike,'' but what does that mean? In ``Nosferatu,'' it means that the characters are confronted with alarming images and denied the freedom to talk them away. There is no repartee in nightmares. Human speech dissipates the shadows and makes a room seem normal. Those things that live only at night do not need to talk, for their victims are asleep, waiting.

Nosferatu Questions:

1. Albin Grau gives the vampire what three characteristics?

2. Murnau’s silent film was based on the

3. is a simian little real estate agent.

4. Who is the real estate agents employee?

5. Where do they visit?

6. Where is it located?

7. : they must sleep in earth from the graveyards of the Black Death.

8. What is Murnau credited with?

9. Murnau’s film is about what four things?

10. What are the characters denied when confronted with alarming images?

Dracula Release Date: 1931

Movie lore has it that Bela Lugosi could barely speak English when he was chosen by Universal Pictures to star in ``Dracula' (1931). Lon Chaney had been scheduled to play the role, a wise casting decision after his success in the silent classics ``The Hunchback of Notre Dame'' and ``The Phantom of the Opera.'' But he died as ``Dracula'' was going into production, and the mysterious 49-year-old Hungarian, who starred in a 1927 Broadway production of ``Dracula,'' was cast. Legend must exaggerate, because the Hungarian emigre Lugosi had been living and working in the United States for a decade by the time the film was made, and yet there is something about his line readings that suggests a man who comes sideways to English--perhaps because in his lonely Transylvanian castle, Dracula has had centuries to study it but few opportunities to practice it.

Certainly it is Lugosi's performance, and the cinematography of Karl Freund, that make Tod Browning's film such an influential Hollywood picture. The greatest of all the vampire films is F.M. Murnau's silent ``Nosferatu'' (1922, another title in this Great Movies series), but Murnau's work was almost a dead end, complete and self-contained, a masterpiece that stood alone. (When Werner Herzog made his version of ``Nosferatu'' with Klaus Kinski in 1979, he was so in awe of the original that he shot on some of the same locations.) The look of Browning's ``Dracula'' was inspired by Murnau's gloomy gothic visuals, well known to the German cameraman Freund, who worked with Murnau on ``The Last Laugh.'' It was Freund who was instrumental in creating the startling impact of the arrival at Castle Dracula, the entrance to the castle's forbidding interior spaces, and such ``Nosferatu''-inspired shots as the hand snaking from a coffin and rats snuffling in a crypt.

What was new about the film was sound. It was the first talking picture based on Bram Stoker's novel, and somehow Count Dracula was more fearsome when you could hear him--not an inhuman monster, but a human one, whose painfully articulated sentences mocked the conventions of drawing room society. And here Lugosi's accent and his stiffness in English were advantages.

Lugosi was by all accounts a strange, deliberately theatrical man, who drew attention to himself with stylized behavior. He made his foreignness an asset, and in Hollywood and New York used his sinister, self-mocking accent to advantage. After the success of ``Dracula,'' he often appeared in public dressed formally, with a flowing cape, as if still playing the role. In later life, addicted to drugs, he was reduced to self-parody, and a glimpse of his last years can be found in ``Ed Wood'' (1994), set during his last picture.

The vampire Dracula has been the subject of more than 30 films; something deep within the legend is suited to cinema. Perhaps it is the joining of eroticism with terror. The vampire's attack is not specifically sexual, but in drinking the blood of his victims he is engaged in the most intimate of embraces, and no doubt there is an instinctive connection between losing your virginity (and your soul) and becoming one of the undead. Vampirism is like elegant, slow-motion rape, done politely by a creature who charms you into surrender.

The Dracula myth has been filmed so often, in so many different ways (most recently by Francis Ford Coppola in his ``Bram Stoker's Dracula,'' 1992), that its material has become like an opera libretto, or a play by Shakespeare: We know the story and all the beats, and are concerned mostly with the style and production. All of the serious later movie Draculas draw from Lugosi's performance, not from the earlier work by Max Schreck, whose ``Nosferatu'' was more inhuman and distant, a skeletal wraith. Lugosi, with his deep eyes (made eerie by Freund with pinpoint lights) and his glossy black hair, created one of the most influential of all movie performances, making a distinctive impression that influenced movie Draculas for years to come--especially Hammer Films star Christopher Lee, who played the character at least seven times.

If the film's look and star performance were influential, so was its dialogue. Many of movie's great lines have entered into folklore:

I never drink ... wine.

For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing.

Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.

The story is familiar to every moviegoer. Renfield (Dwight Frye), an English real estate agent, visits Transylvania to sell a London property to the count. He really wants to make that sale; he takes no warning from the fear of the villagers when Dracula's name is mentioned. He survives a terrifying ride in a coach with no driver. And then he plunges into his doom. The establishing shots of the fearsome interiors of Castle Dracula owe everything to the tradition of German Expressionism. There is the sinister politeness with which Dracula greets his guest and offers him food and ... wine. Then the overpowering of Renfield. The return to England on the ship with its deadly cargo of coffins (another sequence that owes much to ``Nosferatu''). The ghost ship that drifts into port, everyone on board apparently dead except for Renfield, who is stark staring mad.

In London the vampire feasts on the blood of strangers encountered in the night, in scenes owing something to the legend of Jack the Ripper. Then he introduces himself into high society by insinuating himself into the box at the opera occupied by Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston). The doctor owns Carfax Abbey, which is next door to the sanitarium where the unfortunate Renfield has been imprisoned (giggling and eating spiders for their blood). He meets Seward's daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiance John Harker (David Manners) and her friend Lucy (Frances Dade). They are joined eventually by the vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who explains vampirism in more detail than the drama probably requires.

The scenes in Carfax Abbey are an anticlimax after the Expressionist terrors of the scenes set in Transylvania and aboard the ship. They're based on the same Broadway play in which Lugosi first played Dracula, and owe more to the tradition of drawing-room drama (and, it must be said, comedy) than to the underlying appeal of vampirism. Yet even here Browning is able to add unsettling touches, as in the way he suggests Dracula's presence in the visits of bats and in the drifting of fog.

Tod Browning (1882-1962) is a director whose name is central to any study

of the horror genre, and yet most of his best work is overshadowed by his

collaborators. Lon Chaney, ``the man of 1,000 faces,'' seems to be the key creative force behind Browning's silent landmarks ``The Unholy Three'' and ``West of Zanzibar.'' Lugosi, Freund and the subject matter are the creative engines behind ``Dracula.'' One Browning picture that stands alone as his personal vision is ``Freaks'' (1932), set in a circus sideshow, and so shocking it has been banned here and there ever since.

``Dracula'' had no musical score when it was first released, apart from some fugitive strains of ``Swan Lake.'' That left an opportunity. I saw a restored version of the film in September at the Telluride Film Festival, with Philip Glass joining the Kronos Quartet in performing his newly composed score. That is the version now available on tapes and discs.

Purists argue that Browning's original decision was the best one--to enhance the horror by eerie sound effects instead of underlining it with music. But ``Dracula'' has been pushed and pulled in so many different directions by so many different artists that Glass is only following the tradition in adding his own contribution. The Glass score is effective in the way it suggests not just moody creepiness, but the urgency and need behind Dracula's vampirism. It evokes a blood thirst that is 500 years old.

Is the 1931 ``Dracula'' still a terrifying film, or has it become a period piece? The ``most chilling, genuinely frightening film ever made,'' vows the reference series Cinebooks. Perhaps that was true in 1931, but today I think the movie is interesting mostly for technical reasons--for the stylized performances, the photography, the sets. There is a moment, though, when Lugosi draws close to the sleeping Lucy, and all of the elements of the material draw together. We consider the dreadful trade-off: immortality, but as a vampire. From our point of view, Dracula is committing an unspeakable crime. From his, offering an unspeakable gift.

Dracula Reading Questions
1 Who was originally cast to play the role of Dracula?

Who was cast as the replacement?

2 Who is the director of the 1931 film?

Who is the cinematographer?

3 This was the first_______________________________________________based on Bram Stoker’s novel.

4 Name 3 other films of Tod Browning 1.


5 What was the film Dracula lacking when it was first released?

What modern composer created a score in the past 10 years for this film?

Phantom of the Opera

It has always been a question whether "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) is a great film, or only a great spectacle. Carl Sandburg, one of the original reviewers, underwent a change of heart between his first Chicago Daily News review (he waited for the Phantom's unmasking "terribly fascinated, aching with suspense") and a reconsideration written a month later ("strictly among the novelties of the season"). It was not, he added on the level of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" or "Greed," mentioning two of the greatest films of all time.
He was right about that, and could have added the greatest of all silent horror films, Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922), whose vampire may have influenced Lon Chaney's performance as the Phantom. But as an exercise in lurid sensationalism, straining against technical limitations in its eagerness to overwhelm, the first of the many Phantom films has a creepy, undeniable power.
The story is simply told -- too simply, perhaps, so that all of the adaptations, including the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, have been much ado about relatively little. In the cellars of the Paris Opera House lives a disfigured masked man who becomes obsessed with the young singer Christine. He commands the management to give her leading roles, and when they refuse, he exacts a terrible revenge, causing a great chandelier to crash down on the audience.
Christine's lover, a pallid nonentity, is little competition for her fascination with the Phantom, until she realizes with horror that the creature wants her to dwell in his mad subterranean world. She unmasks him, is repelled by his hideous disfigurement, flees to the surface and her lover, and is followed by a Phantom seeking violent revenge. There is no room for psychological subtlety here.
It is the idea of the Phantom, really, that fascinates us: the idea of a cruelly mistreated man going mad in self-imposed exile in the very cellars, dungeons and torture chambers where he was, apparently, disfigured in the first place. His obsession with Christine reflects his desire to win back some joy from a world that has mistreated him. Leroux and his adapters have placed this sad creature in a bizarre subterranean space that has inspired generations of set designers. There are five levels of cellars beneath the opera, one descending beneath another in an expressionist series of staircases, ramps, trapdoors, and a Styxian river that the Phantom crosses in a gondola. The Phantom has furnished his lair with grotesque fittings: He sleeps in a coffin and provides a bed for Christine in the shape of a whale boat. Remote controls give him warnings when anyone approaches and allow him to roast or drown his enemies.
To Christine, he offers wealth, luxury and opera stardom, and she is in no peril "as long as you do not touch the mask" -- oh, and she must love him, or at least allow him to possess her (although his precise sexual plans are left undefined). Perhaps warned by the fate of the hero in her current production of "Faust," she refuses this bargain, although for an engaged woman, she allows herself to be dangerously tempted.
After taking over the leading role from an ominously ill prima donna, she follows a mysterious voice, opens a secret door behind the mirror in her dressing room, descends through forbidding cellars, is taken semi-conscious by horseback and gondola deeper into the labyrinth and sees the coffin where he sleeps. At this point, her sudden cry of "You -- you are the Phantom!" inspired me to write in my notes: "Duh!"
Her lover, the Viscount Raoul de Chagny, is likewise not a swift study. After the Phantom has presumably claimed dozens of victims with the falling chandelier and threatened Christine with death if she sees him again, Raoul agrees to meet her at the Masked Ball. This is held in the Opera House on the very next night, with the chandelier miraculously repaired and no mourning period, apparently, for the dozens of crushed and maimed. Christine tells Raoul the Phantom will murder them if they are seen together, but then, when a gaunt and spectral figure in red stalks imperiously into the grand hall, Raoul unmasks himself, which is, if you ask me, asking for trouble.
Christine determines to sing her role one more time, after which Raoul will have a carriage waiting by the stage door to spirit them safely away to England. This plan is too optimistic, as the Phantom snatches Christine from her dressing room, and the two are pursued into the bowels of Paris by Raoul and Inspector Ledoux -- and, in a separate pursuit, by the vengeful stagehand Buquet (whose brother the Phantom murdered), leading a mob of torch-carrying rabble. The hapless Raoul and Ledoux are lured into a chamber where the Phantom can roast them to death, and when they escape through a trapdoor, it leads to a chamber where they can be drowned.
All of this is fairly ridiculous, and yet, and yet, the story exerts a certain macabre fascination. The characters of Christine and Raoul, played by Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry, essentially function as puppets of the plot. But the Phantom is invested by the intense and inventive Lon Chaney with a horror and poignancy that is almost entirely created with body language. More of his face is covered than in modern versions (a little gauze curtain flutters in front of his mouth), but look at the way his hand moves as he gestures toward the coffin as the titles announce "That is where I sleep." It is a languorous movement that conveys great weary sadness.
The Phantom's unmasking was one of the most famous moments in silent film. He is seated at his organ. "Now, when he is intent on the music," Sandburg wrote, "she comes closer, closer, her fingers steal towards the ribbon that fastens the mask. Her fingers give one final twitch -- and there you are!" There you are, all right, as Chaney, "the Man of 1,000 Faces" and a master of makeup, unveils a defacement more grotesque than in any later version, his mouth a gaping cavern, his nose a void, his eyes widely staring: "Feast your eyes, glut your soul, on my accursed ugliness!"
The other famous scene involves the falling chandelier, which became the centerpiece of the Webber musical and functions the same way in Joel Schumacher's 2004 film version. In the original film, it is curiously underplayed; it falls in impressive majesty, to be sure, but its results are hard to measure. Surely there are mangled bodies beneath it, but the movie stays its distance and then hurries on.
Much more impressive is the Masked Ball sequence and its sequel on the roof of the opera house. The filmmakers (director Rupert Julien, replaced by Edward Sedgwick and assisted by Chaney) use primitive color techniques to saturate the ball with brilliant scarlets and less obtrusive greens. Many scenes throughout the film are tinted, which was common enough in silent days, but the Masked Ball is a primitive form of Technicolor, in which the Phantom's great red cloak sweeps through the air like a carrion bird that enfolds him.
And on the roof, as Raoul and Christine plot, he hovers unseen above them on the side of a statue, the red garment billowing ominously. Chaney's movements in all of these scenes are filled with heedless bravado, and yet when he pauses, when he listens, when the reasons for his jealousy are confirmed, he conveys his suffering.
In a strange way, the very artificiality of the color adds to its effect. True, accurate and realistic color is simply ... color. But this form of color, which seems imposed on the material, functions as a passionate impasto, a blood-red overlay. We can sense the film straining to overwhelm us. The various scores (I listened to the music by the great composer for silent film Carl Davis) swoop and weep and shriek and fall into ominous prefigurings, and the whole enterprise embraces the spirit of grand guignol.
"The Phantom of the Opera" is not a great film if you are concerned with art and subtlety, depth and message; "Nosferatu" is a world beyond it. But in its fevered melodrama and images of cadaverous romance, it finds a kind of show-biz majesty. And it has two elements of genius: It creates beneath the opera one of the most grotesque places in the cinema, and Chaney's performance transforms an absurd character into a haunting one.
The new film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" opens nationally on Wednesday. See also the Great Movie reviews of "Nosferatu," "The Man Who Laughs," "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Orpheus".
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