The myth of the vampire is a powerful one which has survived the ages, and is as potent and as relevant to our modern age as it ever was, perhaps due to the themes of sexuality and death, which like the vampire, never grow old. Key to the modern vision of the vampire legend is Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, a remarkably readable tale of ancient horror entering a modern world. Along with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla, Dracula ressurected the vampire myth for the modern age. The impact of Stoker’s novel on the continued success of the blood drinking undead in fiction cannot be under estimated.
In 2007, with the help of a certain Carol Baynes, I wrote several reviews for “The Dracula Movies” for a cult TV and film website, monitored by Wayne Jefferies. I now proudly present revisions of those original reviews for this blog. I watched and wrote about every adaptation of Bram Stoker’s influential novel (with notable mentions for some of the many sequels and spin-offs along the way). Dracula is a potent story which has never been brought to the screen in the same way twice, and some purists would argue that it has never been faithfully adapted at all. All the same, Stoker’s tale of horror continues to enthral, and enough of it is in these adaptations to entice fans of the book. While I will not give an in depth study of the novel, we will discuss it along the way as we go through the many macabre celluloid representations of the Lord of the vampires- Count Dracula!
Before we look at the first film, a product of the 1920s, the first thing I really have to say is that silent films do not generally deserve their reputation amongst many modern viewers who hold a silly (but understandable) prejudice based no doubt on seeing jerky footage from history programmes and the inconceivable idea that a film could truly work without sound (or the sound of an actor’s voice to be precise). If that is the case you could not be further from the reality.
Many of the techniques and principles of motion picture photography found their genesis and arguably greatest evolution and experimentation during the silent era. It was a vastly important time that produced some genuine masterpieces of cinema; not just from the United States either. If anything, the pre-sound era found a world where Hollywood was in its infancy and world cinema had a chance to breathe and evolve. Many of the greatest pictures came from Europe actually (although that again is more a matter of opinion).
Anyway, without going off on too much of a silent film tangent, I do recommend you all take a fresh look at films pre-1930, if this is not already of interest. With an open mind you will surprised, entertained and perhaps stunned in some cases. I just lament the fact that many films have perished (the original Cleopatra springs to mind), but of the hundreds still around only a handful are on DVD and they are not always easy to obtain.
As for the first film from the Dracula crypt- Nosferatu , it is a classic of it’s time in my opinion. Not particularly a mainstream film, even in 1922, but a very important one, particularly in the horror genre.
Nosferatu ( F.W. Marnau, 1922).
F.W. Murnau’s silent film is the right place for us to start this exploration of cinematic Draculas, because it laid down many of the storytelling conventions adhered to in later adaptations. Elsewhere though, Nosferatu is radically different, and despite its vintage and archaic quality, could have good argument for being one of the scariest adaptations as death has legs and his name is Max Shreck. His performance, equal to the film making talent on show, is integral to the impact of this picture.
This expressionistic presentation is very much a German product of its day, and the whole film is far more of a visual experience than some versions. Some have gone as far as to decipher some perceived analogy in the way various scenes are presented. As often mentioned much German art probably proved an influence, and Max Shreck himself is the visual dark side of the vampire presented in Stoker’s novel- almost a leeching corpse. Some scenes apparently pay homage to the German expressionistic landscape painter Casper Fiedrich, and the film does have his surreal nightmarish quality, most particularly in the scenes set in Transylvania. Elsewhere Fuseli’s art is also referenced as Shreck’s blood sucking incubus lurks at the side of the lady’s bed.
So Nosferatu is a film that offers style and substance by making us think about the symbolism of what we’re seeing- a rarity with later versions. Some of that is open to interpretation, and perhaps we can dwell on those later.
What is clear is that Max Shreck’s Count Orlock is a fantastically creepy presence throughout the whole film (although his screen time is effectively slight). The contemporary audience would have probably feared him even more; bringing the plague to each town he visits (in a substantial change to Bram Stoker’s novel). Eastern Europe would have known the aftermath of WW1 and the influenza epidemic, and the presentation of death in the film could well have struck a chilling chord.
Overall, Nosferatu is looking its age (which is probably more down to the shoddy treatment the film had in the 1920s and ’30s with Stoker’s widow filing law suits to have all copies of the film destroyed. A long story we can take up later perhaps. The film effectively disappeared after the ’30s, before its ‘revival’ and reappraisal some 30 years later.) But despite it’s rough quality it still holds a magnetic appeal. It presents very strong images which stay in the mind long after. Witness Shreck’s uncanny and almost metaphysical rise from his grave, the arrival of the ghost ship into the harbour and the ascent of the vampire up the stairs to its prey, in arguably one of the most famous single scenes in all vampire films; shadowy claws several steps ahead of its form.
There is beautiful direction in all these scenes; beautiful, and also un-nerving. For a picture like this, a perfect emotion to incite.
The film presents an alternative re-telling of Stoker’s book it must be said, with a degree of simplification. This was maybe to cut down on the need for non-visual narrative, but Stoker’s novel is still followed quite faithfully. While the structure was setting a precedent for future productions, this film remains the only one I have seen so far to include the letters and manuscripts so integral to the structure of the original novel. Also worth mentioning is that this is the first film in which a vampire is seen to be vulnerable to sunlight (it actually destroys him). This idea was not in Stoker’s novel or in general vampire lore, but is now an integral part of the modern vampire myth, and this film is where it had its basis.
Elsewhere, there are a few scenes that don’t work. The fast motion effect in several parts looks odd to my modern eyes, and almost comical. The expressionistic acting can also be (slightly) over the top as well. The scene where Hutter announces his intention to visit the count is quite amusing. The reaction following the caption “I have to go onto Count Orlock’s castle” was followed by a group of expressions so vivid that I swear I could hear the gasp!
If I suppressed a laugh, it was understandable I suppose, but be clear on this- in a dark room nearly 90 years after the film’s release, I wasn’t laughing for long. This film can still command your respect and attention.
We will re-watch some great movies over the next few months, all based on Stoker’s great novel of an ancient evil in a more modern time. But one movie in, be assured, I have already seen the most important. Whether it translates as well to a modern audience is debatable, but its innovation and influence are undimmed.
I believe there is one true masterpiece in the collection of Dracula films that I will look at here, and this is it.