Watching Old Movies: Nosferatu (1922)

1922

 

What happened this year?

Some neat stuff, some not so neat. On the neat side, the first successful insulin treatment for diabetes was administered! On the not so neat side, Mussolini seized power in Italy. On the neat side, Rebecca L. Felton became the first female US Senator. On the not so neat side, Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned for sedition.

Also, Vegemite was invented. Make of that what you will.

 

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(All I’m saying is that it might not be a coincidence this happened the same year that Tutankhamun’s tomb was also discovered.)

 

As for famous births, this was actually a pretty good year, with Judy Garland, Betty White, Bea Arthur, Doris Day, Martha Stewart, Charles M. Schultz and not one, but two awesome Lee’s with Christopher Lee and Stan Lee!

(Also consider this the obligatory Stan Lee cameo for this thread.)

However this wasn’t all good news. German currency went through some truly ridiculous inflation as a result of the post-war punishments inflicted upon it by the Allied Nation. How ridiculous, exactly? Well, in 1919, the normal exchange rate was 12 German marks to one American dollar. In July of 1922, the exchange rate was approximately 563 marks to the dollar. By December of the same year, the exchange rate had gone up to 7000 marks to the dollar. Which is, you know, not great?

Why am I bringing this up, you might ask? Well mainly because this year’s movie is a German Expressionist horror and I needed to find some way to make that awkward transition from Stan Lee and Vegemite to a hideous terrifying vampire. And it was either this or a Twilight joke. Aaaaanyway….

 

Nosferatu

 

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Plot:  An English German estate agent named Harker Hutter is sent on a journey to deepest Transylvania to visit the castle of the sinister Count Dracula Orlok, in what Harker Hutter believes to be a routine business deal, leaving his lovely wife Mina Ellen behind. Harker Hutter’s trek is an unusual one, with many locals not wanting to take him near the castle where strange events have been occurring which doesn’t at all remind you of any other famous vampire novel. Once at the castle, Harker Hutter does manage to sell the Count the house, but also discovers that the Count is really a vampire or Nosferatu. While Harker Hutter is trapped in the castle, the Count, hiding in a shipment of coffins, makes his way to Whitby Wisbourg, causing death along his way, …

Trivia: Count Orlok is only seen blinking once on screen, near the end of Act One.

Helped Inspire: A lawsuit from Bram Stoker’s estate.

 

My Thoughts:

Okay, good news everyone, you can put the torches and pitchforks away, because this is one 1920’s German Expressionist horror that I thought actually did hold up fairly well. Really. Definitely. Totally. 100%. I mean, okay, there were a few problems here and there but- wait no, put that pitchfork down!

Seriously though, I wasn’t kidding, this is actually pretty damn great. Espeeecially the titular Nosferatu.. Vampires have gone through quite an evolution over the years, from scary to pretty to tortured loners to comic figures, back to being scary and so on and so forth. And, while I could make arguments both for and against what each of those different types bring to the table (yes, even Twilight), I genuinely can’t think of any vampire in any media I’ve ever watched as instinctively and unnaturally horrifying as Max Schreck’s Count Orlok.

Seriously, this guy is isn’t in the movie quite as much as you think, but every time he shows up, you just can’t look away. It’s not just the fantastic make-up that easily outdoes any modern CGI, or the unsettling rat-like design that still somehow reeks of danger. But it’s the physical performance as well, the weird shuddering way in which Orlok moves, like a stop-motion figure slowly creeping towards you. Not to mention the way he gets some of the most iconic moments in vampire lore… hell, in movies in general. The ‘vampire rises at an unnatural angle out of his coffin’ thing has been parodied to death and back, but this movie not only created it, but still manages to come off as kinda terrifying.

I also gotta compliment a lot of the beautiful and sweeping visuals whenever they showed up. No weird painted backgrounds in this one (and yes, I still think they looked kinda silly in Caligari). The house Orlok eventually moves to in Germany deserves special mention for its almost looming presence throughout the movie.

I do have issues though which stop me from declaring it an out and out all-time favourite for me. For one, most of the stuff without Orlok is not nearly as interesting as the stuff with him in. And since, as mentioned, he’s not in the movie quite as much as you’d think, that means a lot of time with the relatively uninteresting side cast. Secondly, even though I thought it held up better than Caligari, there are still areas in which the movie definitely shows its age. Especially the ‘night’ scenes, which have clearly been shot during the day and a terrible-looking blue filter added in post.

In conclusion, this one’s definitely worth checking out. It’s a story that you’ve probably seen told a bunch of times, but with an outstanding central performance, some excellent direction and genuine sense of creeping horror that many movies have tried but failed to recapture. As it is, I’m giving it a strong B+.

 

Rankings:

1. Nosferatu – B+

1. The Goat (1921) – B+

2. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) – B-/C+

 

 

Alright, well I’ve done a second German Expressionist Horror now, so maybe I should try a second comedy to help balance it out. Preferably one with an iconic scene or two to reference. I’d start looking now, but it is getting rather late over here in the UK. In fact, I wonder what time it is…

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