Sunday, March 4, 2012

Watch 'Nosferatu' on Psychobabble!

Nosferatu (1922- dir. F.W. Murnau)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula had been in print for 25 years when the first feature-length adaptation of the key vampire novel materialized. Bram had been in his grave for ten years, but his wife Florence maintained tight control over the work that was her only significant source of ongoing income. So, it is hardly unreasonable that she took issue with F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of Dracula. Despite efforts to mask its source material by fiddling with title, setting, and character names, Nosferatu was not only unmistakable as Stoker’s vampiric tale, but in the sprawling pantheon of adaptations that would follow, it is one of the more faithful. Still, Florence Stoker’s methods of dealing with the infringement against her husband’s book were extreme, to say the least. Without having even seen Murnau’s film, she commanded all prints be destroyed. Thankfully, her largely successful campaign was not completely successful, and before the 1920s came to a close, prints of Nosferatu resurfaced with the uncanny resolve of its undead title creep.

Murnau presented his supernatural material with an unprecedented seriousness, tempering Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and Wegener/Boese’s (The Golem) outré tendencies to create a more mildly expressionist film that solidified horror’s conventions. Experimentation is still fully present in the vampire’s unsettling perfect-posture rise from his coffin and the independently animated shadows (a device Francis Ford Coppola would overuse in his own Dracula adaptation 70 years later). Like The Phantom Carriage, Nosferatu is less concerned with rewriting the cinematic rulebook and more intent on creeping under the skin. This is the first horror film that could really be called scary, or at least the first one that remains so. Much of its fright-power resides with the rat-like appearance and disquieting, marionette-like movements of Max Schreck’s Dracula. But the barren, Gothic sets and impenetrable darkness in which Murnau surrounds him is equally potent. When it comes to eliciting true terror—as opposed to repulsion or shock—subtlety always triumphs. Murnau knew this well. He also recognized the importance of good source material, and no other work of horror literature would ever be adapted more often than Dracula. That none of the multitudinous adaptations that followed over the subsequent nine decades improved on Nosferatu significantly is a testament to that version’s greatness.

This overview is a newly expanded version of the one that originally appeared in Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies.

Nosferatu turns 90 today.
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