Schreck it out

Audiences raised on Freddy flicks and Jason slasher movies won't be scared by Nosferatu--Symphony of Horrors. They're callused, desensitized to anything short of a blood bath on screen and an adrenaline rush off. Yet the 1922 film is still oddly disturbing and, unlike some other black-and-white silent films, hasn't become more comical with each release because of poor production and melodramatic acting. The tricks and cinematography look standard, but they were revolutionary before being copied beyond recognition.

Like a few other silents such as The Gold Rush and The General, Nosferatu is also still popular, though its aficionados are mainly pretentious film students, cult-film fetishists, and Goth kids who'll buy anything that involves vampires. Type O Negative even added a soundtrack to a 1997 re-release that also featured commentary by Kung Fu fighter David Carradine. Talk about creepy and disturbing. What, William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy wasn't available?

Nosferatu was the first Dracula on screen. Only it wasn't. Bram Stoker's widow, Florence, was still alive, so director F.W. Murnau and producers Prana-Film changed the characters' names and the location titles to avoid being sued. It didn't work. Stoker and the British Incorporated Society of Authors sought restitution. The German film company went bankrupt, but Stoker continued until finally a judge decided that all copies and negatives must be destroyed. Like the Stoker vampire, the film emerged in London later, and eventually crossed the pond, where it was finally able to enjoy success in America.

The controversies involving Nosferatu are as famous as the film itself, but the myths didn't start with the release. During filming, some cast- and crew-members disappeared (mysteriously, of course). Others died. Max Schreck, who played the vampire Count Orlock, was accused of being a real vampire and the cause of the film's constant restaffing. Willem Dafoe will play Schreck to John Malkovich's Murnau in Shadow of the Vampire, a film to be released in September by Nic Cage's Saturn Films about the filming of Nosferatu. Cary Elwes (who helped kill the count in Bram Stoker's Dracula) and Catherine McCormack will co-star.

To date Nosferatu is still the most Stoker-esque Dracula filmed. Even if the count is called Orlock and London was changed to Bremen, the plot remains true. Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film starring Gary Oldman and Wynona Ryder, Bram Stoker's Dracula, should have been called F.W. Murnau's Dracula. It pays more homage to Nosferatu than to Stoker. Nosferatu's scenes in which Orlock's shadow seems to have a life of its own are copied in the Coppola film, only with bigger hair. Mel Brooks did it even better in Dracula: Dead and Loving It three years later.

Despite the special effects of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Schreck's vampire is still more frightening than Oldman's. While Oldman's charming and handsome Drac bored his victims to death with flowery speeches about undying love, Schreck was grotesque and had more blood lust than sexual lust. Though his was the first Dracula, none since has looked like Schreck. He is no seducer, enchanting women before thrusting his teeth into their necks. Nosferatu's Orlock couldn't charm an Eskimo into a sauna. His bat-wing ears accentuate his bald head and beady eyes. He has fangs in the front and center of his mouth like a rat, and his hands tipped with curling nails tremble as he takes each deliberate step through dark and shadowy frames. Plus, Schreck's stiff, bug-eyed rise from his coffin outdoes Oldman's angry burst any day. It may not be scarier, but Nosferatu proves that newer doesn't mean better and that silence and the unknown is still more chilling than screaming and blood dripping down walls.

Shannon Sutlief

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Shannon Sutlief