Well there’s one thing I can cross off my bucket list. (There’s a lot on there, and some of it’s weird.) I finally saw F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu: ein Symphonie des Grauens” (1922).
And am I damn glad I did! I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I love plenty of classic movies; “The 39 Steps” (1939) and “To Have and Have Not” (1944) are among my all-time favorites. But I’m accustomed to modern horror — my tastes generally extend only as far back as “The Birds” (1963) and “Night of the Living Dead” (1968).
I waited until I was in just the right mood. (This is the first silent film I’ve ever seen from start to finish — the only exception being Mel Brooks’ 1976 parody, “Silent Movie.”) Then I began it shortly before midnight.
The movie just worked for me. It was sublimely creepy.
I think it helped that the grainy, flickering, black-and-white period footage made this expressionist movie utterly atmospheric for a modern viewer. These, combined with the shots of Max Schreck superbly made up as “Count Orlok,” were damned unsettling. Schreck also appeared to be a great physical actor, with his gaunt stance and stilted, inhuman movements. (Was he unusually tall too?)
The vintage footage also enhanced my enjoyment of the movie in a way that Murnau probably couldn’t have expected. I know this is strange, but … nearly a century later, the thought that occurred to me several times during this movie was this: “Everyone involved in this production is long dead by now.” Yes, I know that is a morbid thought — I’ve never done that before! I think it was just the film itself that did that to me — it’s about undeath and immortality, after all.
It also helped that I’d read Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897), of which this film is an unauthorized adaptation. The resulting lawsuit by Stoker’s estate is interesting reading: supposedly all copies of the movie were ordered by the courts to be destroyed, bankrupting Prana, the production company. But a permanent cult following developed for the few surviving prints.
Anyway, I followed this up with the palate-cleansing “Night on Bald Mountain,” the final segment of Disney’s “Fantasia” (1944). That combination, too, totally worked for me — I followed up the black-and-white nightmare-fuel of the seminal vampire film with some vivid, incongruously hellish Disney nightmare-fuel.
“Nosferatu” is in the public domain. You can view the entire film on Youtube at the link below.