Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) (1922)

Nosferatu

Nosferatu, Eine Syphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) – 1922

Director –  F. W. Murnau

Starring – Max Schreck, Greta Schroder, and Gustav van Wangenheim

Of the many different genres of cinema, horror seems to be relegated to the bottom of the list when it comes to perceived importance and impact.  Drama, perhaps, is the category voted the most likely to get recognition and accolades, where as comedy seems to get the people’s choice award, but for my money some of the most effective and memorable films reside firmly in the realm of suspense, tragedy, and horror.  Even films that are billed more as mystery like, Psycho, or science fiction, such as Aliens, have elements directly rooted in the anatomy of the horror film.  Brimming with dark imagery, unsettling characters, and casual situations gone wrong, films such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Thing are very obviously direct descendants of Nosferatu.  it doesn’t end there either, F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece has informed the structure, tone, editing, and atmosphere of movies as a whole, and worked its way into the DNA of the language of modern cinema.

The most striking feature of Nosferatu, is the look of the film (duh…it is a silent movie after all.).  Though not as exaggerated and dramatic in appearance as fellow german expressionist work, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I found the imagery more immediate and haunting.  Starkly black and white (with only subtle color washes to provide a different feel for outdoor versus indoor scenes), Nosferatu relies on stillness and subtle creeping atmosphere to first un-nerve the viewer, then slowly build the tension of the film to a boiling point.  From the long shadowed gothic architecture of the vampire’s castle to the dilapidated, shell of a building which he inhabits upon his arrival in the fictional coastal town of Wisborg, the set pieces lend to the characters aura of danger, and the looming danger that follow with him.

Borrowing obviously from the Dracula story, originally by author Bram Stoker, Murnau and his lead actor Max Schreck craft a version of the vampire character rooted not so much in sexual charisma and riches, than it is in brute strength and fear.  Count Orlok as this Vampire is known, looks sleep deprived, starved, and ravenous.  There is a ferocity in the portrayal that is far more present and vibrant than almost every other vampire that I’ve ever seen depicted in film.  Orlok looks like a cross between the Tall Man from the Phantasm films, and a burned rat, and frankly seeing him for the first time, silhouetted in the archway of his manor, is more than a little unsettling.  The film even refers to him as the “Bird of Death”, further likening him to the dangerous animal that he is.

His appearance isn’t his only weapon though, throughout the film, the vampire utilizes impressive strength, mind control, power over animals, as well as a peculiar telekinetic ability which allows him to, non-corporally interact with the world (self-moving coffins, and doors opening in a simple, but effective stop-motion animation).  When these qualities are added up in one package, Orlok seems like an unstoppable force and brings a real sense of dread with him as he lurks slowly through the scene.

One of the first examples of a Cult Film, Nosferatu nearly didn’t survive after the estate of Bram Stoker sued for copyright infringement and a court ordered all existing prints of the film burned.  This bankrupted the production company who had neglected to acquire the rights to the Dracula story.  Luckily, copies of the film had already been shipped around the world, and survived destruction, eventually being copied and cultivated by fervent fans and film enthusiasts the world over.

As far as acting goes, the discussion should start and stop with the film’s terrifying lead, Max Schreck.  His gaunt frame and solid performance helped to create one of the most indelible characters ever created.  The rest of the cast does a fine job in their roles, but they only ever really play second fiddle to Schreck/Orlok, causing us to miss him when he leaves the frame and thrill us every time he is back on the screen.  His performance is so legendary, that a number of rumors have built up around both the character as well as the actor, painting him as everything from a true method actor, to a a real life sadist who simply plays himself on-screen.  It is these rumors that inspired a fictionalized telling of the actor’s life during the filming of Nosferatu, in the form of “Shadow of the Vampire” starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck.

From the research I’ve done (readings and such about the making of both Nosferatu as well as Shadow of the Vampire) I can find no evidence that any of that is true.  Instead, it would seem that this rather powerful character has simply had the effect of coloring people’s impression of a rather popular stage character actor.  Like many actors, (ie: Maria Falconetti from Passion of Joan of Arc, Linda Blair of the Exorcist, and Jaye Davidson of The Crying Game), Schreck seems to have used up all of his intensity, charisma and skill to be remembered for one great work of art.  Though he continued acting, it is always Nosferatu that he will be remembered for, and vice versa.

I feel like there is so much more that could be said about this film, including comparisons to other films, and weighing and mapping the influence that ripples even through the films of today, but I feel the best service I can do is simply to tell you to watch it.  Just watch the shit out of it.  I know it’s silent, and sometimes silent films can be boring, but this film is worth it (not that others aren’t worth it, mind you).  To see this film is to see one of the keystones in the history of film, a film that helped to define the rules which are adhered to even today.  So do yourself a favor and watch it, you won’t regret it.

“Nosferatu be needing some veneers!”  –  Ashley

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Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy – 1989

Director – Gus Van Sant

Starring – Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, and James LeGros

There are a few basic steps that each and every narrative film must go through to ensure that the audience can relate to, continue to watch and enjoy the film in question.  Step one: Develop compelling characters.  We as the audience need a trustworthy, reliable vehicle through which we can experience the story.  Step 2: Craft an interesting tale.  Fashion a story that has a message about something the audience either already knows something about, or would be interested to learn about.  And step 3: Tie the whole thing together and make it fun (or in the absence of fun, make it important).

In the case of Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant cherry picks from the list of steps, taking elements that he likes and leaving the rest.  While it does have characters, they aren’t very compelling.  In fact they are all rather shallow and unlikable, each a little smarmier than the last.  As far as story goes, it is of the long, agonizing, downward spiral variety.  Not super compelling, really, just a little boring to watch.  As for the last step, that was actually sort of a success.  These, selfish, venal characters were married very well with the uncomfortable depressing story, unfortunately the fun and importance WAS left out.

To bring everyone up to speed, here is a brief breakdown of the story.  Bob, Diane, Rick and Nadine are a group of junkies and opportunists out to commit small-scale robbery of drugstores (hence the name) in order to steal the controlled medication from the pharmacy counter.  When they aren’t faking seizures and or breaking and entering all in the name of getting high, they’re getting wasted, antagonizing the cops and belittling each other and their drug addled stoner neighbor (which ends up being important later on in the story).  After one of them accidentally overdoses, the three remaining addicts hole up in a haze of pot, heroin and dilaudid, and try to figure out how to ditch the body and avoid the police.

Like some of his other films (Elephant, Gerry, and To Die For spring to mind), Gus Van Sant seems to gravitate towards subject matter without a light at the end of the tunnel.  But where Elephant was an examination of the country’s reaction to the Columbine school shooting, and To Die For was an interesting, well acted, noir story at its best (I never saw Gerry), Drugstore Cowboy lacks any real redeeming quality.  Matt Dillon’s Bob spends so much of the movie as a paranoid, shitty human being, that I found it hard to give a shit about his so called “redemption” and thought it seemed rather tacked on and false.

Heather Graham as Nadine was the most sympathetic of all the characters, and only really because I felt sorry for her.  Where as the others seemed reap what they had sewn, Nadine seemed decidedly innocent and tragic.  Matt Dillon, and the rest of the major players did a fine job acting, and in truth they were probably fairly accurate to how these people would be in real life, I simply took no pleasure in watching them.

As far as direction, I far prefer the rather optimistic Gus Van Sant who surfaces every now and again to direct the occasional Oscar bait like Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forrester.  These films are far less confrontational, but they also balance the director’s inherent malaise a little better with the occasional sweetness and intelligence that we all know he’s capable of.

Now I realize I’m being a little overly harsh on this film.  It simply wasn’t my cup of tea.  In terms of its structure, and artistry, the film stands up fine, but the subject matter and the characterizations really left something to be desired for me.  I know it’s not fair to pre-judge a film, but I have a feeling that I will have an equally hard time with My Own Private Idaho which I will also have to watch as it is one of the 1001 on this list.  But I’ll do my best to give it a fair shake, and who knows…maybe I’ll be surprised.

If you’re looking for a dark movie revolving around drug addiction, and poor choices, I don’t know that you can get any better than Requiem for a Dream.  Strangely enough, the highs and lows are far deeper than those of Drugstore Cowboy, and the ending is just as (if not more) bleak and depressing.  Still the craftsmanship, architecture and immersion of Requiem left me feeling strangely satisfied, like I had really just seen something vital and important, something with a very strong warning message about the dependence and co-dependence of drug addiction, not to mention the inter-personal relationships of the people involved.

“Terrible people doing terrible things in a terrible movie.” – Ashley