Saturday, August 13, 2011

Nosferatu: film's first bloodsucker

When I think about vampires, I often go back to cinema's first bloodsucker. If you said Bela Lugosi as Dracula, you'd be wrong.

If you said Max Schreck as Count Orlok, you'd be right.

In 1922, German filmmaker F.W. Murnau wanted to make "Dracula" but didn't buy the rights from Bram Stoker's widow. So he changed all the names and the setting and made "Nosferatu." Unfortunately, he didn't change the plot enough to be unrecognizable to Mrs. Stoker. She sued and the courts ordered all prints of the film be destroyed. Guess what? Vampires are hard to kill.

In horror and film history, this is a familiar tale. We're lucky to even have any record of the movie's existence, let alone a surviving print (that is now in the public domain, up for use by anyone).

But what is so special about "Nosferatu"? Is it really good enough to have been remade by Warner Herzog in 1979? Is it worthy of "Shadow of the Vampire," the fictionalized account of its making, starring John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe?

The answer is yes. The '79 remake is very true to the original and in many ways is simply a legal version of the same story. Klaus Kinski as the Count is excellent but lacked the unnatural thinness of Schreck's original creation. Schreck's vampire was so disturbing some thought him to be the real deal.

And that is why we have the 2000 film "Shadow of the Vampire." Dafoe plays Schreck/Count Orlok. He's brilliant in the role, playing the vampire playing the actor playing the vampire. Does that make sense? Watch the movie. It works out.

Malkovich shines as the obsessive Murnau and supporting actors Udo Kier (who has played a vampire more than once himself) and Eddie Izzard (not in drag, sorry) bring fresh blood (ha ha) to their roles.

"Shadow of the Vampire" would not exist without Murnau's silent film. Nor would the look of Barlow in Tobe Hooper's version of Stephen King's " 'Salem's Lot." (More on this as the week continues.)

"Nosferatu" has earned a high place in horror history. It has influenced countless writers, artists and filmmakers, but, more importantly, stands on its own as a horror classic.

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