October 23, 2013

NOSFERATU Needs More Vampire While SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE Needs Less Cary Elwes

"It will cost you sweat and tears and perhaps...a little blood."
I'm gonna keep this short and sweet because I'm fucking exhausted.  This is the time of year when sports has the ability to slowly take over my life.  Right now there's college football, NFL games, the start of the NHL and oh yeah, THE RED SOX IN THE WORLD FUCKING SERIES.  On top of all that, I've still got to watch a movie a day.  And write them up.

Yikes.

This past weekend was a busy one, with USC playing Notre Dame on Saturday night at the same time that the Red Sox clinched the ALCS, followed on Sunday by the Head Of The Charles Regatta and a Patriots loss to the Jets in a controversial play that still has analysts scratching their heads.  Somehow amidst all that testosteroniness I managed to squeeze in viewings of the silent vampire classic Nosferatu as well as Shadow Of The Vampire, a fictional account of Nosferatu's production based on rumors that the title character was played by an actual vampire.

There is shockingly little vampire stuff in Nosferatu.  Max Schreck's Count Orlok is utterly fantastic with a creature design that is singularly creepy, from his giant rabbit fangs to his spindly fingers and long nails.  Tragically, he's AWOL for too much of the movie, spending a big chunk of the story locked away in the hold of a ship bound for Germany.  In the meantime we get a lot of Hutter the estate agent falling down while trying to beat Orlok back to his wife Ellen, who's largely stuck at home with neighbors while getting psychic premonitions about her husband's doom.  When Orlok does arrive he brings a herd of plague rats with him, while also putting Hutter's boss Knock under some kind of spell that turns him into a raving lunatic despite never actually sharing a scene with the vampire.  The townsfolk decide to sacrifice Knock in order to bring an end to the plague (?) while Hutter returns home and warns Ellen that Orlok is out to get her, leading Ellen to eventually sacrifice herself in order to distract the Count the rising sun.  Day breaks and and the monster is disintegrated, which also magically lifts the plague from the land.

Considering that the whole script hinges on the lethal effects of sunlight, it's astounding just how much of this movie was shot during the day while pretending to be night.  In fact, when Hutter first meets Orlock, the Count immediately complains about the late hour and claims that it's after midnight, a statement that's immediately followed by the two men walking across an open courtyard while casting shadows on the ground.  It's pretty distracting, although the restoration I watched on Netflix Instant did an admirable job at recreating the original color tinting; the film was obviously shot in black and white, but most day scenes are colored yellow while night scenes are colored blue to help compensate for the wonky lighting.  Also, I have to wonder if most audiences were functionally illiterate in 1922, as most of the title cards remained on screen long enough for me to read each one about four times.  Has average reading speed increasing over the last 90 years?  Were they catering to people who couldn't read very well?  I'm curious only because it really grinds down the pace of the film - trim the title cards down to reasonable lengths and the movie would probably be about 15 minutes shorter.  The effects are truly impressive for the time, including one scene where Orlok appears as a transparent spectre and another where he climbs into a coffin and then levitates the lid into place.  And all the use of Orlok's freaky shadow is awesome.  But mostly I just wish that Nosferatu had a little bit more actual Nosferatu.

In that regard, Shadow Of The Vampire does not disappoint.  The always great Willem Dafoe stars as Max Schreck and it's a supremely creepy performance.  Apparently it was his work here that helped land him the role of the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, and it's little wonder as Schreck and the Goblin bare a striking resemblance to each other.  In fact, I wish that Raimi had used some of the Schreck prosthetics instead of that silly metallic mask, as Dafoe might then have had even a nominal ability to display human emotion.  Dafoe plays Schreck as a tragic character, an evil beast grown somewhat weary with age who finds motivation in his obsession with Greta Schroder, the film's leading lady.  She's dangled in front of his face like a carrot by the obsessive F.W. Murnau, played with a kind of manic focus by John Malkovich.  There's an admirable effort to recreate many of the shots in the original film, right down to grain of the film stock.  Unfortunately, the Shadow Of The Vampire vacillates between true horror and pure camp.  It's almost as if Dafoe and Malkovich are in one movie while Cary Elwes and Udo Kier are in another, and poor Eddie Izzard is stuck somewhere in the middle.  It's odd to say the least.  Then again, it was produced by Nicholas Cage.

Still, I feel like I haven't done enough justice to some of the horror classics this month.  We're about a week away from Halloween and it's becoming clear that I'm just not going to get around to any of the Universal Classic Monsters, which is a real shame.  Hopefully I'll get a chance to dive into a few before my year is up.

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Title: Nosferatu, A Symphony Of Horror
Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder, Alexander Granach
Year Of Release: 1922
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)



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Title: Shadow Of The Vampire
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Starring: Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, Udo Kier, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack
Year Of Release: 2000
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD