Friday, October 5, 2012

Final Girl Film Club - Nosferatu

Throughout October, Cody will be participating in the Final Girl Film Club SHOCKtober event with articles posted on a different movie every day of the month.

Today, a double feature of the 1922 and 1979 versions of Nosferatu.

The original 1922 version of Nosferatu is a film that is not supposed to exist. Producer Albin Grau was inspired to make a vampire movie after hearing local legends while serving in Serbia during World War I, so he and his producing partner Enrico Dieckmann attempted to get the rights to turn Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula into a (silent) film. When they couldn't secure the rights, they moved forward on making a movie out of Dracula anyway. Henrik Galeen, writer of the 1920 horror film The Golem, was hired to write an adaptation that moved the setting to the production's home country of Germany, changed the characters' names and cut out several of them completely.

The basic skeletal structure of Stoker's story remained: a young man who works in real estate is sent by his employer to visit the castle of a Transylvanian Count who wants to buy a home in their city. The Transylvanian locals believe in legends of vampires and monsters and won't go near the Count's home, but the young man continues on to the castle. Once there, he is greeted by the Count, a very strange man who has an odd reaction when the young man accidentally cuts himself and takes an uncomfortable interest in the young man's fiancee after seeing a picture of her.

The Count is soon proven to be a vampire, and he leaves the young man behind, trapped in the castle, as he sets out for the city he has just purchased a home in with nefarious purposes - he wanted to be in the midst of a fresh food source. He travels to the city by ship, and by the time the ship has reached its destination the Count has caused the death of everyone on board. Between taking advantage of all the human blood is that is now available for him to feed on, racking up a large bodycount that is blamed on the plague, he terrorizes the nights of the young man's fiancee. The young man, meanwhile, has managed to escape from the castle and races home to stop the Count and save his fiancee, but he may be too late...

When Bram Stoker's widow learned that the German film company had still made their movie after failing to secure the film rights and had stuck so closely to her late husband's work, she sued the filmmakers for copyright infringement. Mrs. Stoker won the case and the court ordered that all film prints of Nosferatu be destroyed.

If all of the prints had been successfully destroyed, the horror genre would've lost one of its earliest classics and been deprived of some of its greatest iconic images. Most copies of Nosferatu were burned, but at least one print survived, having been shipped to the United States, where Stoker's novel was in the public domain. And so, the film still endures and 90 years later we can still enjoy the wonderful artistic images provided by director F.W. Murnau and the extremely creepy performance of Max Schreck as Count Orlok, still the best looking vampire ever put on screen, with his hawk nose, furry bat ears, viper fangs, claw-like fingernails, and evil eyes.

In 1979, director Werner Herzog chose to make a new version of Nosferatu in a celebration of German film history. Most directors should not even attempt to remake such an important film, but Herzog pulls it off by telling the story with his own arthouse sensibility while showing clear, loving devotion to the original. He stays extremely faithful to Murnau's film, following its structure almost scene-by-scene, expanding on the situations and characters - characters that he was able to name after the ones from Stoker's novel, so we get the familiar names of Dracula, Harker, Van Helsing, etc. this time.

Also familiar are the actors in the lead roles; future Downfall star/ranting Hitler meme performer Bruno Ganz as Harker, a simultaneously deathly pale and amazingly beautiful Isabelle Adjani as his fiancee, and the legendary Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula.

Kinski's Dracula has the same nightmarish look as Schreck's Orlok, but the character isn't just a bloodthirsty monster, he has been humanized, and Kinski is able to convey a deep feeling of loneliness and sadness through the horrific makeup. His immortality is an unbearable curse.

Herzog shot in some beautiful locations, a fact that he knew all too well, packing the movie with long shots of landscapes accompanied by Popol Vuh's score, to the chagrin of distributor 20th Century Fox. He also shot at some of the same locations Murnau did fifty-seven years earlier, the Count's new home is the same building in both films.

Herzog's Nosferatu is an exceptionally well made film that serves as both a great tribute and a great movie on its own. It does, however, have an achingly slow pace. As closely as it follows the '22 film, it's almost thirty minutes longer, lingering shots and those moments of landscape appreciation making up a big part of the difference. Nosferatu '79 will never be a movie that I watch on a regular basis, I've only seen it twice now and there were several years between viewings, which is the best way for me to approach it. There needs to be distance between viewings and the movie has to be watched under the right circumstances so I can sit back and enjoy the artistry rather than get agitated by the pace.

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