Monday, August 2, 2010

Review: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

Director: F.W. Mumau
Starring: Max Schrek, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder

Fear is a tricky ploy, used by many to gain an underhanded advantage and also to create a sensation that is not replaceable by pretty much anything else. We just love being scared. Unfortunately, this becomes a harder and harder feat to attain as time goes on. As a society and as a larger whole, people just became desensitized; a slow and gradual process that made it really frigging easy for us to all turn up our noses at more and more so-called ‘scary’ ideas and images as time went by. The news was a big stake in its heart…so was the rapid discovery of new effects and ways of telling stories in movies. And then the internet came along and pretty much completely pulverized any fears we had of anything that might have previously been unknown; thank you 4chan for all your wonderful contributions.

However…there was once a time when life was simpler, and the art of filmmaking something hallowed. In that time, we could be more easily scared and awed, because the world was still a big, vast place, without anywhere near the amount of connectivity that it has today. There were still enough blank spaces in humanity’s repertoire of knowledge to allow for a suspension of disbelief, a crevasse of blackness with which to fill…and fill they did. It was out of this that Nosferatu was born; a bile-caked, slithering horror that was unlike anything before it. These days it seems positively silly that anyone could find this movie scary when we have so many others that are endowed with better effects and more blood, right? Not exactly.

Yes, this is a silent movie, in case you might not have known that. It replaces the spaces where dialogue would be today with a heavy dose of pompous music and a lot more expressive faces and body language from each of the actors, with only text cards to serve as some sort of script to move the story along. The sets are heavily color-coded, with some being shaded in orange, others in blue and some rare scenes in purple even. It’s really fascinating how they made up for the shortcomings with the lack of dialogue, pulling out all the stops and using every trick they had. The direction is simple and stark, serving the story well and making it instantly memorable. All the hallmarks of horror are here in primitive, glorious form. The lingering shots of lead guy Hutter riding his horse up to the Count’s castle, the shots of the townspeople chasing insane Knock in the cornfields, and especially the horrific shots of Nosferatu himself rising from his crypt and staring out the window with his blank, hungry eyes are all incredibly captivating and scary. Feel the chills down your spine yet?

The story is based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and I don’t think I have to go into too much detail. A man is sent up to talk to the strange Count in his mountain castle to see if he wants to purchase a home in the city. The only problem is…well, he’s a little strange, in ways that turn out to be quite deadly. As the town is cast into a shadow of plague and fear, is there any way to be rid of the terrible specters that haunt it in the night? I just love the story. The suspense is untouchable; just epochal in every way. It’s the kind of classic, timeless storytelling that cheers me up just thinking about it. It is executed masterfully. And remember, these people had no boundaries, no set rules or regulations when they told this story through their darkened, fearful eyes. This is an artful, tasteful film with a lot of style to it in its home-brewed horror.

But with age and a new era of horror movies washing away the impact of this one, people have grown cynical and have turned their backs on movies like this. Nosferatu is dated, there’s no doubt about that; but what does that really mean? Nothing except that any shmuck with good connections and the right marketing can make a movie these days and have it distributed reasonably, as opposed to the masterful craftsmanship of a movie like Nosferatu; that’s what. In these modern days it is difficult at times to look at this movie with its strange coloration and other time-period oddities, and try to believe everything that’s going on on screen, and that is perhaps the great tragedy that even I can’t escape as I write about how good this movie is. And there’s no way to get around that…not really.

This is not a film for anyone who isn’t totally into movies. It isn’t something for people who only watch films casually and talk about them for a few minutes before forgetting them, and it certainly isn’t for anyone who can’t get past the fact that the film is silent and shot without regular coloring. Nosferatu is but a bold, horrific relic of a time long gone by. It is scary in the way of a folk-tale or a campfire story; clouded with fog and hyperbole, but also a lurking, unseen and nightmareish horror, shambling in the dust, waiting for you to come to it, instead of the other way around…