No, The Open Man is not dedicating this space to Mean Girls — though I do love that movie. It’s one of the 10 best films of the 2000s, and ranks among my all-time favorite comedies. Come to think of it, Halloween provides a pivotal plot point in Mean Girls. Hmm…
Nah. While high school was indeed horrifying and traumatizing for many of us, Mean Girls doesn’t exactly fit The Open Man’s 31 Movies of Halloween countdown. Instead, I’m using this ocassion of three — Oct. 3 — and The Plastics trio to spotlight three horror films at once. Yes, that makes The Open Man’s 31 Movies more than 31, but think of it like that nephew Anfernee you keep calling Anthony.
Last Mean Girls reference, I swear.
OK. So let’s rewind to the silent film era and 1922. I have an affinity for silent movies that began in a rather strange way. Shortly after graduating college, I worked for CBS in a role that required odd hours and non-traditional days off. My weekend typically included Mondays, so I would often go out on Sunday nights. A bar in walking distance of my apartment changed its TVs from football once the NFL slate was completed to Turner Classic Movies, which dedicated its nighttime block on Sunday to silent films.
Silent movies were strangely ideal when going out with a handful of friends. I could easily follow storylines without hearing the audio, since … well … they’re silent.
I was aware of Nosferatu‘s existence prior to my interest in silent film, first as the result of a Spongebob Squarepants gag (seriously):
And later, the excellent 2000 film, Shadow of the Vampire.
Shadow of the Vampire is an underappreciated gem starring Willem Dafoe(!) and John Malkovich(!), which spins a horror story out of the production of a horror movie. It’s not a mockumentary in a style similar to Behind The Mask (another horror-genre standout you need to see), but rather, a fictionalized concept built from the rumors that the original film spawned.
These rumors stemmed from the bizarre behavior of actor Max Schreck, the German theater performer tabbed to play Nosferatu antagonist, Count Orlok.
Shadow of the Vampire relies on atmospheric tension to build its horror, rather than violence or shocking imagery. In that way, it’s a perfect homage to the 1922 film — something I did not fully appreciate until years later. I originally watched Shadow of the Vampire in 2002, but didn’t make time for Nosferatu until my interest in silent cinema was picked in 2009. I’d long dismissed silent movies as archaic, and believed there was no possible way a silent film could scare me.
Wow, was I wrong. Nosferatu is a genuinely terrifying work. The film is predictably light on graphic violence; though the Hays Code was not instituted for another 12 years after Nosferatu‘s production, this wasn’t exactly an era in which depictions of gore would play with audiences. To wit, the relatively tame Freaks, released 10 years after Nosferatu, caused a serious stir with its ending.
Rather, Nosferatu invokes fear through the brilliant cinematography of director F.W. Murnau. Murnau’s framing of certain shots, with Schreck’s creepy, direct-to-camera takes, send a chill up your spine. To that end, the filmmaker’s inability to gain licensing for the character of Dracula actually works to the movie’s benefit.
Indeed, Nosferatu is the first film adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel from 1897. An out-of-print 1913 film predates Murnau’s production, but that’s the eponymous film version of a Rudyard Kipling poem. Producer Albin Grau sought to finance his own vampire film three years later, wanting to adapt Dracula. This website offers a fascinating account of the copyright battle.
Once Dracula hit the big screen in 1931, the iconic Universal Studios version spawned countless sequels and remakes. Bela Lugosi’s performance is iconic, and set the standard successors like Christopher Lee and, to an extent, Chris Sarandon, followed: that of an intriguing and seductive manipulator.
That Nosferatu failed to acquire the rights to the Dracula story gave birth to a wholly unique, and thus more frightening character. Count Orlok’s ugly appearance adds to the character’s creepiness. He is depicted without any of the sexualized intrigue commonly associated with vampires today. Rather, he’s a manifestation of plague. His introduction in the film makes allusions to the Black Death, with mentions of rats and disease.
Perhaps ironically, Murnau managed to create a villain that is actually more iconic than Dracula. Whereas others put their spin on the character, Count Orlok has never been remade in the almost 100 years since the film’s release. Shadow of the Vampire used Orlok as a vehicle for Max Schreck as its antagonist. Meanwhile, the 1979 remake of Nosferatu — the Klaus Kinski-starred, Warner Herzog-directed Nosferatu The Vampyre — uses the Orlok makeup … for Count Dracula.
It is indeed a Nosferatu, and an excellent film you should check out this Halloween season. But its vampire is Dracula, not Orlok.
All three films come highly recommended, and the original can be seen for free on YouTube. I advise against watching it sitting at your workplace desk, however. Nosferatu‘s best watched on your TV with all other lights turned off to enhance the dark, atmospheric tone. Turn up the volume, too: It’s a silent movie, but many version include Gothic music that provide the perfect soundtrack.