Nosferatu: The Film That Wouldn’t Die

There is no doubt that Freidrich Willhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Symphony of Horror) is a piece of landmark cinema, both for its Expressionist filmmaking and its unique treatment of the vampire as plague. Yet few people saw this monumental film prior to 1960. Though slated for destruction by Bram Stoker’s widow, the film managed to survive, popping up in the most peculiar places.

Nosferatu debuted at the Marble Hall of the Berlin Zoological Gardens in 1922. The movie was the first and last product of a small art collective called Prana Films — the brainchild of artist Albin Grau (later Nosferatu’s production designer). A month later, Florence Stoker caught wind, and she started the legal machines rolling. Her only income at this point was her deceased husband’s book Dracula, and she would not let some German production company steal her meal ticket. During the 1920s, intellectual rights were a bit dodgy, so Florence paid one British pound to join the British Incorporated Society of Authors to help defend her property. Never mind that the society would also pick up the tab for the potentially huge legal bills.

Florence seemed unaware that a second vampire film, this one called Drakula, was produced by a Hungarian company in 1921. Although the title harkens back to Bram Stoker’s novel, the resemblance ends there. This film, now lost save for some stills, was more concerned with eye gouging than straight out vampirism. Nosferatu on the other hand took much of its plot from Stoker’s Dracula, changing only the names.

The film continued to be exhibited in Germany and Budapest up through 1925, though Prana was beleaguered by creditors and harassed by Florence Stoker. They tried to settle with the society, offering a cut of the film’s take in order for them to use the Dracula title in England and America. Florence would not relent.

She not only wanted Prana to halt exhibition of the film, she wanted it torched — all prints and negatives of the film destroyed. And she got her way. In 1925 Florence won her case and the destruction order went through. Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens vanished into thin air just as Count Orlock, the vampire in the film, did when exposed to the rays of the morning sun.

Nosferatu did not stay dead. Like any good horror movie, the villain revived himself and carried on the fight. A print of the film resurfaced in 1929, playing to audiences in New York and Detroit. However preeminent Dracula scholar, David J. Skal, writes that the film “was not taken seriously” and that most audiences considered it “a boring picture”. The print was then purchased by Universal to see what had already been done in terms of a vampire movie. The film was studied by all the key creative personnel leading to the Universal production of Dracula in 1931.

The undead film continued to rise from the grave throughout the years. An abridged version was aired on television in the 1960s as part of Silents Please, and subsequently released by Entertainment films under the title Terror of Dracula, and then again by Blackhawk Films under the name Dracula. Blackhawk also released the original version to the collector’s market under the title Nosferatu the Vampire. An unabridged copy of the movie survived Florence Stoker’s death warrant and was restored and screened at Berlin’s Film Festival in 1984.

Despite its influence on the making of the 1931 Dracula, Nosferatu has few film decedents. It’s theme of vampire as a scourging plague has only been seriously taken up by two films: the 1979 remake by Werner Herzog, Nosferatu: The Vampyre, and the 1979 television miniseries of Salem’s Lot, directed by Tobe Hooper. Perhaps if the original Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens had been allowed regular release, this would not be the case. It remains to be seen if Nosferatu will vanish again with the daylight or if this rare film will rise again in a new form.

For more information on the making of the original Dracula, check out David Skal’s book Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen.

Tim Kane

Top 10 Vampire Movies You Need to Watch

I have watched A LOT of vampire films. Not all of them are wonderful or even watchable. I recall one, Jugular Wine, that I only lasted fifteen minutes. Don’t take that as a dare to watch it. It’s not worth your effort. Although the film Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter sounds interesting, it is too odd to really enjoy. And then there are the musical numbers (yes, you heard me right).

In honor of my book, The Changing Vampire of Film and Television, passing the 500 sales mark, I picked the top ten vampire films every horror devote should see. My criteria for choosing these films were the following: Could I watch this movie over and over and not be bored; was there some nifty artistic qualities (like cinematography, set and costume design, and direction); Finally, did any of it make me laugh.

10. Son of Dracula
Why put a Dracula sequel (the third in Universal’s series), with the inscrutable Lon Chaney Jr. as Dracula, on a list of vampire movies? The short answer is that it sticks with me. Take Dr. Brewster, who pokes his nose where it doesn’t belong as only an American can do. There’s also a very physical Dracula, who strangles his adversaries. The special effects are well done for the 1940s. Dracula transforms into mist and a bat, and also dissolves when the sun rises (the first on screen since Nosferatu).

9. Blacula
Okay, I know this was part of the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s and as a time capsule for that era you couldn’t do any better. This is the one film where a vampire walking around in a cape attracts no attention. Surprisingly, Blacula has a lot to offer even as a vampire film. William Marshall puts depth into his portrayal of Mamuwalde, an African Prince who has been imprisoned in a coffin by Dracula. His original love, Luva, is reincarnated as Tina. And check out this this love line: “I live again, to loose you twice.” In the end, when Tina is destroyed, Blacula decides to take his own life, staggering up into the sunlight and dissolving. After you get past the camp factor, Blacula has a lot to offer as a vampire film.

8. Dracula
I know I’m going to get crucified for putting the Bela Lugosi film in 8th. But let’s be serious, is this film really frightening anymore? The film drags, and this is due to Tod Browning’s direction. Browning did not pay close attention to how the film was shot and edited. In one scene, on the balcony, there is an “endless take” of about three minutes where the camera never moves. Dracula remains, however, a strong film. It has some stunning visuals (due mostly to Karl Freund, the camera man) like when Dracula emerges from his coffin. Bela Lugosi’s performance remains unmatched. Because he had to learn his English lines phonetically, he inserted odd pauses to his delivery, thus creating the famous Lugosi accent. Finally, Dracula would not be complete without Dwight Frye’s manic performance as Renfield. His laughter alone should put this movie on anyone’s list.

7. Return of the Vampire
This film marked the return of Bela Lugosi to the role of a vampire, Armand Tesla. The werewolf servant (now a staple in Halloween lore) had its start in this film with Andreas Obry, played by Matt Willis. He redeems himself in the end, dragging the hapless vampire into the sunlight, which oddly doesn’t kill him. Tesla seems merely stunned by the daylight. Andreas drives spike through his chest, causing the vampire to melt away, a special effect quite gruesome in its day.

6. Underworld
Guns, vampires, werewolves, and tight leather outfits. How could you loose? Underworld takes the art direction of the Matrix and meshes it with a Mafioso-style action movie. The casting of Bill Nighy as the head vampire, Viktor, added just a bit more panache (he also was Davy Jones in the Pirates movies). The film’s original concept was to remake Romeo and Juliet only with werewolves and vampires. If you extract the sappy romance and beef up the Tybalt, you get Underworld.

5. From Dusk Till Dawn
Technically this is only half a vampire flick. The first part is pure Quentin Tarantino dialogue and plot line. Robert Rodriguez’s shoot ‘em style doesn’t take charge until the main characters reach the Titty Twister bar across the Mexican border. Tom Savini (the makeup master for Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th) sports a penis shaped pistol that springs from his belt buckle. The priest, played by Harvey Keitel, can’t bring himself to curse, yet blows away multiple vampires with a shotgun that doubles as a cross. Honestly, if you haven’t seen this movie, then stop what you’re doing and rent it. You have a nearly naked Salma Hayek dancing with a snake. Need I say more?

4. Fright Night (The Original)
A campy vampire film set dead in the middle of the 1980s. With that said, it single handedly revived the vampire genre. What works about this film is that writer-director, Tom Holland, did his homework. The main character, Charley Brewster, has a name borrowed from Son of Dracula. While the actor and vampire hunter, Peter Vincent, is a combination of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing (See Horror of Dracula below). Peter Vincent is unusual in that he is terrified of vampires and cowardly through most of the film. While the vampire Jerry Dandrige, played to the hilt by Chris Sarandon, eats up the scenery, and several apples. I read that Sarandon added the apples because somewhere in his family tree was a fruit bat. (Insert rim shot.) As a film it nears perfection, but you have to overlook the sad 1980’s attire and mandatory dance scene.

3. Horror of Dracula
This film marked the first color Dracula and spawned eight sequels. It also starred a pair of actors that became notorious in their own right: Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula. Hammer Films took full advantage of Technicolor with dripping fangs and bloodshot eyes. The studio acquired the rights from Universal so long as they didn’t use any of the trademark looks or plots from the original Dracula movies. The result is a somewhat haphazard tale set in Germany. In the final face-off between the two adversaries, Peter Cushing crosses two candlesticks to from a crucifix, thereby driving Dracula into the sunlight. A classic move now a part of vampire lore.

2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Some people hate this film. I choose to embrace it, bad acting and all. In terms of the acting, I am of course referring to Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves. Winona was so adamant about not showing guilt (apparently she doesn’t believe in the emotion) that director and cast members had to shout obscene things to her from off camera to get any reaction. However, this movie best portrays the novel by Bram Stoker. Yes it inserted a reincarnated love. (Remember Blacula? You never thought that movie could be so groundbreaking did you?) Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula was spot on, adding layers of back story to a traditionally flat character. Finally factor in Francis Ford Coppola’s fauvist set and lighting and you have a masterpiece of a movie.

1. Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles
Let me say this up front, I am not an Anne Rice fan. However, I love the movie Neil Jordan crafted from her prose. Even Anne Rice, who at first threw a fit over the casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat, had to eat crow. Brad Pitt admirably butches up the role of Louis, and a young Kirsten Dunst holds her own as Claudia. One particularly moving scene is when Claudia and her newly transformed companion are set in a sewer at sunrise. We see the light slice down the wall, and strike the couple, now embracing. When Louis discovers them, the bodies flake away as ash. This film is the culmination of the mood and themes from sixty years of vampire films.

I know I will get flack for the films on this list. You may have your own favorites that didn’t make it. Or perhaps you feel the order is wrong. I invite you to share your opinion. Remember, these are all great vampire films, whatever order you put them in.

Tim Kane

The Five Most Common Misconceptions About Classic Movie Monsters

I am a monster nut. I’ll own that. My first published book dealt with vampires in film and television. I grew up on the Toho crew. I have action figures for nearly every major Universal monster (including the second Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Creature Walks Among Us).

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my four-year-old daughter has taken a liking to the classic monsters. By this I mean the big five: the four Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and the Woflman) and also zombies. Recently, while watching the Hex Girls on Youtube, my wife stumbled upon the Monster High videos. My daughter was hooked. But this got me thinking. The cartoon/merchandise features the big five monsters, all with the familiar quirks akin to each one. But I knew that many of these were off base from the true legends of these creatures.

The five classic monsters (plus a gorgon)

So after hours of research, I present to you the five most egregious errors we make about classic movie monsters.

5 Werewolf

Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man

I admit, after looking through countless books, I found that most of the traditional legends line up with our common associations. The link of werewolves to the moon dates back to 1214 where Gervaise of Tillbury reported cases in Auvergne of men turning into wolves during the full moon. There is some controversy about the silver bullet. Some believe it was all made up by Universal for the Wolf Man movie. But historians know that in 1767, the Beast of Le Gevaudan was killed with bullets from a melted silver chalice.

The only thing I can say that most likely not part of original folklore is the pentagram on the hand as a mark of the werewolf. This was probably concocted by the Universal folk for the film. A pentagram has traditionally served as a symbol of protection (even from werewolves).

4 The Mummy

Boris Karloff as the Mummy

Mummies are a staple for monster themed parties and kids playing with rolls of toilet paper. But not all mummies are bandaged and scribbled over in hieroglyphics. There are mummies all over the world. Basically any place extremely dry will create a mummy. And for the sake of argument, we’ll define a mummy as something with most of the internal organs still present. Those are the squishy bits that tend to dissolve during decomposition.

The strangest mummies I found were the Incan mud mummies. These date back to 5000 BC, rivaling Egypt as the first to mummify. Basically, the Incans would disassemble the body, organs and all. They used heat to dry the skin. Then the body was reformed using feathers, clay and glass. Everything was covered in a white ash paste. Finally, the skin was refitted on the body.

Then there are the bog mummies. This type of mummification might have been accidental (oops, I fell into a peat bog) or a form of sacrifice (slipping a deceased relative into the bog to bring him or her closer to the gods). Either way, the body became preserved in the frigid stagnant water loaded with tannic acid. Sometimes not everything survived the years in the bog. Take the bodies found in Florida. Here only the brain was preserved (along with the skeleton) from bodies 7000 to 8000 years old.

Finally, we have the Chinese mummies. Western China is basically one ginormous desert. In addition to the sand, heat, and wind you get bonus pits of salt. These were used a cemeteries as well as areas of sacrifice. One young woman was found partially dismembered with her eyes gouged out. There was also a baby boy, apparently buried alive.

The strangest finds have come from the Takla Maken Desert. Over the past thirty years, archeologists have found many mummies, but all of them have been caucasian, not Chinese. And these shriveled folk had a thing for clothes, many being buried with multiple outfits. The most famous mummy is “The Man with Ten Hats.” You guessed it, he was buried with ten hats.

3 Zombie

A Voodoo zombie

Real zombies don’t eat people. In fact they don’t do very much at all. Lafcadio Hearn introduced English speakers to the word zombie through his brief article, “The Country of the Comers-Back”, which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1889. Most were little more than slaves working on sugar plantations in Haiti. They were dumb brutes, working mindlessly. The eyes were dead, unfocused and vacant.

A central precept of Voodoo, a hybrid of African animism and Catholicism, is the possession of a body by the loa. A person was believed to have two souls, the gros-bon-age (the big good angel), and the ti-bon-age (the little good angel). Each soul served a purpose. The gros-bon-age served to give the body life, while the ti-bon-age gave the person their personality. During a Voodoo ceremony, the loa would displace the ti-bon-age, and thus control the person’s body.

It was George Romero’s film, Night of the Living Dead, released on October 2, 1968, that forever changed the image of the zombie. Romero never refers to his walking dead by the word zombie. Instead each of his films calls them the living dead. Despite this technicality, modern moviegoers made the connection. When Romero’s second film, Dawn of the Dead, was released in 1978, it was distributed internationally as Zombie (or Zombi).

2 Vampire

From the 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre

Traditionally, vampires looked nothing like Edward Cullen or Lestat. A more apt description would be a ruddy-faced overweight man with long fingernails, his mouth and left eye open, with a linen shroud as clothing. (Not really going to sweep you off your feet, is he?) The biggest transformation to this myth came with the 1931 film version of Dracula staring Bela Legosi. Here the monster is shown as debonaire and charming. Much of this depiction came from Bela Lugosi’s performance and the original stage play.

Additionally, Bram Stoker’s Dracula could walk in daylight (although he prefers night). It was left to two subsequent movies to introduce death by sunlight. In Son of Dracula (1943), Lon Chaney, Jr. Plays Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backward). He simply fades away when struck with the sun’s rays. In Return of Dracula (released in 1944, only a few months after Chaney’s performance), Lugosi returns as Armand Tesla. In the end, he dissolves in the sunlight.

For more information on vampires, check out my article on vampire apotropaics.

1 Frankenstein

Frankenstein’s Monster

The problem most people make with this monster is his name. Frankenstein is the doctor. The tall green guy with bolts in his neck is simply “The Monster.” In the Mary Shelley novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, she called the creation Adam. In one of the play adaptations of the novel, the creature is billed as simply “________, played by Mr T. Cooke.”

This time we can’t completely blame the Universal picture for the confusion over the monster’s name. This happened in Shelley’s time. (It’s what you get for not naming a central character, writer’s take note). Yet once Universal cast Karloff as the “Unnamed Monster”, the audience stuck the monster with the doctor’s name. This is despite the fact that in the opening credits, it’s Karloff who is unnamed, appearing as a question mark.

Opening credits for Frankenstein

I hope all this has cleared up some misconceptions about our favorite monsters. It doesn’t change how these creatures have evolved. It’s natural to think of vampires dissolving in the sun, zombies eating brains, and that hulking monosyllabic fellow as Frankenstein.

Tim Kane