Tuesday, October 25, 2005

"I never drink...wine."

Okay put on your thinking cap. When you think of Halloween, what images come to mind? Candy? Sure. Kids? Of course. That time you nailed that sexy hunchback in the supply room at the office Halloween party? Well, maybe that's just me. Ever think of...Romanians? No? Really? Hmm. Work with me here people! Ever think of guys, "Zat talk like zis!" and wear tuxedos and opera capes and don't like mirrors or garlic? I'll let you think about it for a moment.

That's right! Vampires! Specifically Dracula - as played by Bela Lugosi. Bela's portrayal of Count Dracula the vampire from Transylvania is part of popular culture around the world. So much so that there is a thriving tourist trade in Transylvania. Which as all of us edumacated Americans know is a region of modern day Romania. So you do think of Romanians on Halloween! So there nyah!

Well, Universal's Dracula starring Bela was not the first film version of Bram Stoker's vampire novel - and sure as hell not the last! The first full length film adaptation was made in 1922 in Germany by F. W. Murnau, and was called...


Nosferatu is (supposedly) an old term used in eastern Europe meaning vampire. What language is it from? Where was it first used? I don't know. Read a book! However, the fact that this term has remained in use and is actually recognized by those of us who are not 90 year old Romanian women can be attributed to the film.

If you know the story of Dracula, then you know the story of Nosferatu. But that does not mean this film is not worth seeing. Because Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula has so influenced the image of the vampire, it is fun to see The Count before the world had heard of Bela Lugosi.

Nosferatu was made in 1922 and is silent. This alone is a significant difference. There is no suave banter, no "Good eve-en-ing!" But this is more than made up for by the visuals. The vampire in this version is not a handsome, sophisticated man of the world type, like Bela. No, Nosferatu lets you know the first time you see 'Count Orlok' that this is not a guy you want to invite to a dinner party. The count looks rather rat-like. He is very tall and very thin. He has very long fingers and long claw-like finger nails. He is bald. He has very large unblinking eyes. His ears are pointed. He moves strangely, haltingly, carefully, as if he is constantly stalking. When he reads, he holds the paper right up to his nose. He refers to blood as 'precious'. Yeah Orlok is one odd dude.

But the best part comes when we finally get to see his teeth. Orlok does not have the sharp canine teeth we are used to seeing in vampire movies. Orlok's teeth are very large and are right in the front of his mouth. They are his incisors - again very rat-like.

The association with rats does not stop there. The film points out that vampire legends often blame the horrible outbreak of disease on vampires and their vermin hoards. Sure enough, plenty of rats follow Orlok when he moves from his castle in Transylvania to new digs in Bremen. And they bring plague with them. There is a great scene of bearers carrying the coffins of plague victims down the street. Huh? Wait a minute! Did I say the count moved to Bremen? Well, it is a German movie. Bremen takes the place of London. Not a big deal.

Nosferatu does divert slightly from the standard story of Dracula that we all know. Bremen instead of London. The plague. Early in the film we see Orlok roaming about the Transylvanian country side howling and scaring people and horses as a...hyena? Yep! A hyena was used for these scenes - and kind of a scrawny one at that. I guess the idea was that a hyena looked more exotic and ferocious than a wolf. Remember this was before TV. No one had seen Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Many people who did not live in central Africa did not know what a hyena looked like.

The biggest change in the story is at the end. I won't spoil it for you. You should see this movie, for historical reasons if nothing else, but this version does not end the way we are used to vampire movies ending. Here's a hint: Van Helsing does nothing! He just shows students venus flytraps and hydra and tells them that they are types of vampires!

Nosferatu also has some great outdoor scenes. That may not sound like much to you and me, but exterior filming was a lot more difficult in those days.

I saw this film while I was in collage. The version I saw at school was much better than the bargain bin DVD I own. It actually referred to the vampire as Count Orlok - my DVD refers to him as Dracula. That is important, and I will tell you why shortly. Also the version I saw at OSU had several scenes that were not included on my DVD and a much better musical score. The scenes I remember - and miss - most are those featuring Orlok carrying his coffin from the ship to his new home. There are several scenes where stop motion techniques are used to imply the vampire's magic. In the missing scenes, Orlok jumps from point to point in negative exposure until he gets to his new home. When the film goes back to normal exposure, we can tell that the people on the streets did not see Orlok pass by!

You should see Nosferatu. It is a fun scary movie. It is the first full length version of Dracula ever produced. It lets you see the story of Dracula from a different perspective. And simply because you can. What do I mean by that? Well, Nosferatu is what we would call today an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula. Bram Stoker was dead by the time it was made, but his widow was not. She sued because the film makers never received permission from the Stoker estate to make a version of Dracula. She won. A judge ordered all copies of the film destroyed!

Somehow a few copies survived all these years. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

The Great Lakes Brewing Company makes a beer called Nosferatu. It is a red ale. I tried to get some to use as the perfect beer review to go with this movie review, but I have not been able to find it at the stores near my home. Rest assured I will get my paws on some and give you a full report. Stay tuned!

"Two! Two vandeerful Halloween movies! Aah aah aah!"


Hal's Wife said...

Ohmigosh! I love this movie!!

I, too, first saw it while in college - Hal was on campus at the time also, but doesn't remember this event, so I'm sure he didn't attend -- he would NOT have forgotten it!

It was a truly memorable experience! The film was shown on a big cinematic screen, and directly in front was placed a huge cathedral-style pipe organ. As you mentioned, the film is silent, but at this event, a renowned organist supplied dramatic music to complement the film -- it was phenomenal!

I don't know if that type of showing was ever repeated at IU, but I now wish that I could experience it again the same way.

And since I'm a professional at 'looking it up', here's what I found on the name Nosferatu from Wikipedia (I know, not exactly an authoratative source, but I'll go with it for now).

Contrary to popular opinion, the word "nosferatu" does not mean "vampire", "undead", or anything else like that.

The term originally came from the Old Slavonic word nosufur-atu, which itself was derived from the Greek "nosophoros".

"Nosophoros", in the original Greek, stands for "plague carrier". This derivation makes sense when one considers that amongst western European nations, vampires were regarded as the carriers of many diseases.

BigRuta said...

Damn it's great to have smart friends! Thanks for the info Bibliobabe!. I knew about the connection between vampires and the belief that they spread disease, but I had no idea that that was the origin of the term nosferatu.

Sounds like you had a fantastic experience when you saw this movie at Indiana University. I wish I could have been there. When I saw it at Ohio State it was part of a film appreciation class. It was shown on a screen at the front of the classroom. It was certainly bigger than my TV, but it was much smaller than an actual movie screen. And how cool is it that you had live music to listen to during the film! Wow. Too cool!

I did get to see the restored version of Laurance of Arabia in it's original aspect ratio on a huge movie screen. I think it was Panavision. Or maybe Cinemascope. Not sure but the picture was huge!

Thanks for the great comment BB!