We have now come to that most wonderful of seasons, the October season. And to celebrate, I am going to present a series concentrating on spinetingly-dingly films for your enjoyment. The first of these is one of the great achievements of the silent era, FW Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.
Taken together with 1920's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu (1922) forms the foundation upon which all horror cinema builds. (And indeed, the two pair excellently as a double feature.) Like Dr Caligari, it comes out of the German expressionist tradition. The film retells in an unauthorized, folklorey kind of way Bram Stoker's tale of Dracula, which I hope I don't have to summarize for you.
The film's most striking feature is its iconic imagery. You have seen the shadow of Nosferatu's taloned hand reaching for his victim; his pale, pointy face in reverse silhouette against the dark. You know what he looks like as he rises from his coffin and as he moves up the stairs. These and other images from the film have been reproduced, parodied, and referenced to one degree or another in almost any horror film you have ever seen. Much more than its cousin Dr Caligari (which sets the par for striking imagery) Nosferatu has remained an essential element of our cultural subconscious. I think this is in part due to the fact that, although undeniably expressionist, the film's real locations (instead of cubist, abstract sets) ground it in a kind of reality that the fever dream of Dr Caligari doesn't reach for. It feels just off-center instead of nearly hallucinogenic.
The other element that takes the film a step beyond Dr Caligari and maintains its amazing influence is its pioneering achievement in editing. Some of its best moments are when it intercuts between the vampire's ship and the separated lovers he threatens. These truncated pieces balance wonderfully with the long, methodical takes that dominate whenever Nosferatu is present to create an agonizingly fatal kind of mood. He is as inevitable as the tide, an ever-present theme in this silent symphony.
Lest I inadvertently plant expectations that won't be met, I should note that in establishing the genre, the film differs quite substantially from our modern horror sensibilities. In fact, I would say that it likely won't "scare" you like you're used to. There are no "jump" moments or even attempts at irony or mystery. What you will find instead is a slow, constant, fully-realized single image, which, as a film, you have as little control over as our heroes do their fate. You and they can both only watch, and hope for a good end.
I should also note that many versions of Nosferatu can be found for free on the internets, and that probably none of them are very good. Film scans used are often incomplete or of poor quality, and the music can either have nothing to do with the film or just be really bad. I recommend finding a proper DVD release, which are usually done by some manner of film preservation society. Their scans are as good as can be found, and the music is usually at least not bad. If you prefer, though, watching it with no music at all is especially ambiential and creepy if you are alone in your room at 11 at night and it is raining. Just saying.
So I say you really should see Nosferatu. It is certainly a great way to start off your October season, and is as foundational and influential to the horror genre as anything out there.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror features Max Schreck, Gustov von Wangenheim, Alexander Granach, and Greta Schroeder, and is unrated, though appropriate for most audiences.
Written by Henrik Galeen
Directed by FW Murnau
Fan-made trailers, like full copies of this film found online, vary greatly in quality. I suggest watching this with the sound muted, because the music is beyond obnoxious. But it gives a glimpse of the images, as well as the color-tinted filmstock some restorations use.
by Chase Harrison