What I Watched Last Night: Nosferatu and Bram Stoker’s Dracula Double Bill

As part of the BFI ‘Gothic’ season, a double screening Vampire night was hosted by Grimmfest  at the Dancehouse theatre in Manchester. A couple of speakers introduced the films – Nosferatu (1922) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) – and they were keen to emphasise the Irish heritage of the Vampire legend. Bram Stoker, the author of ‘Dracula’ was Irish born and bred, while the name itself is apparently derived from the Gaelic phrase ‘droch floha’, meaning ‘bad blood’. In between the screenings there was also a short Irish film about vampires called The Gloaming; it was only seven minutes long, it was in Gaelic, it wasn’t especially good and it was rather amusingly produced by Brian O’ Brien, with Patrick Paddy McManus O’Callahan in the director’s chair. I made up the second name.

Nosferatu (1922)

Director: F. W. Murnau

Cast: Max Schreck, Greta Schroder, Ruth Landshoff

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Nosferatu, the self-titled ‘Symphony of Horror’, is a silent German film split into five parts, which shifts the events of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel to 1830’s Germany.  As in the book, an up-and-coming estate agent (named Hutter in this instance) travels to Transylvania to arrange the sale of a house in his home town of Wisborg to the wealthy and mysterious Count Orlok aka Nosferatu. The Count ensnares Hutter in his dark shadows before shipping out in a coffin (waking up for sailor sized snacks now and again) with a view to claiming Hutter’s wife Ellen and making unwilling blood donors of Wisborg’s inhabitants.

While Nosferatu is not scary, it does have an eerie atmosphere that is hard to resist, and its exposition –delivered from a tome as if describing true events- gives it an edge of believability. More importantly, Nosferatu stands as a landmark in movie history as it is purportedly the first horror film ever made. Being a silent film, and a particularly old one at that, there are bound to be various soundtracks; this screening was accompanied with an odd mix of shrieking cello pieces, militant drums and even the odd bit of Mozart for the lighter moments.

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Dozens, if not hundreds of films and TV productions have riffed on the story and imagery of Nosferatu  since its release. One scene  in particular stood  out as being the clear inspiration for ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London; Hutter bursts cheerily into a Transylvanian pub, demanding a quick meal so as to continue his journey to Count Orlok’s castle. At that, the jovial locals recoil in horror, warning him of the werewolves that roam the land at night (the dreaded beast is later shown, and turns out to be a rather cute looking Hyena).

Max Schreck was chosen to play the titular villain, and it’s easy to see why; his gangling sinewy frame and bulging eyes suit Nosferatu’s murderous lunar activities perfectly. He isn’t exactly terrifying but remains interesting to watch. Charming stop-motion effects are used to portray his powers of telekinesis; perhaps revolutionary at the time, now laughable, they nevertheless make for a more enjoyable experience.

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Nosferatu has some pacing issues, with the mundane fourth and fifth acts seriously lacking in the dread which fuels most of the story but it’s brilliant for its time and should be seen, if only to appreciate just how many films have attempted to emulate its style and success.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Director:  Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Sadie Frost, Richard E. Grant

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Ford Coppola’s Dracula sticks far closer to the source material. The 1992 adaptation boasts a top notch cast and a vividly realised gothic atmosphere but it is bloated, ostentatious, overlong- and decidedly un-scary. Since Noseferatu was fresh in the mind and it was interesting to observe the iconic imagery which crops up in this newer version of the Dracula tale. That said, comparisons to such a pioneering piece of horror cinema are probably unavoidable when working form that source material.

Gary Oldman is the fervently camp Dracula (aka Prince Vlad aka Nosefratu aka Count Dracul) of the title. A quick intro provides some unnecessary back story: Dracula was the head of the ‘Dragon Order’ and a valiant warrior. While away at battle, the filthy Turks falsely convinced his wife Elizebaeta that he had been slain in battle, and upon receiving this news she killed herself. Dracula was inconsolable and denounced God, vowing to live eternal and bring suffering to all mankind.

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A few centuries later and Vlad has a real thirst on, so sends word to London in order to set up a new home there and sample the locals. Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves doing a most atrocious Victorian English accent, on a level with Jason Statham attempting any voice that isn’t Jason Statham) is sent forthwith to the Carthinian Mountains carrying the deeds for Carfax abbey, (somewhere in the Bat-tersea area?)  but doesn’t quite get the welcome he was expecting. Having seen a photo of Harker’s fiancé Mena – a spitting image of the long dead Elizabeta- Dracula sets off for London to seduce her, leaving the poor estate agent to the whims of his demonic brides. Although he is trapped ‘against his will’ by a ravenous Monica Belluci, Jonathan Harker decides to escape and put a stop to Dracula’s devious perversions.

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Stylistically and plot wise, this film is all over the shop. Furthermore, the emotions and actions of the central characters are bewildering, especially when it comes to dealing with werewolf rape. Richard E. Grant as a concerned doctor and Anthony Hopkins as a raving, decapitation obsessed Van Helsing bolster the already formidable acting roster and are at least able to make it more watchable. Impressive gothic sets and lavish costumes make Dracula pleasing to the eye as well, not to mention the remarkable practical effects. As whole though, the film tries to be too many things- epic romance, horror, action adventure-  and it ends up as an overcooked, somewhat whimsical caper (CAPE! Sorry). It didn’t suck, but it will leave you feeling pretty drained. Suffice to say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not the definitive Vampire film- Nosferatu has a much better shout at that title.

In case you’re interested, here are some details for the next Grimmfest / BFI screening:

http://grimmfest.com/grimmupnorth/2013/10/monsters-john-rylands-manchester-10th-jan/

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