Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Blood on the Rocks

This is my entry in the Gothic Horror Blogathon hosted by Pale Writer.

The original film vampire, predating Bela Lugosi by almost 10 years was the German expressionist version of the classic Stoker novel Dracula titled Nosferatu.

Nosferatu (1922):

The classic first adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula had its problems from the start.  First, Murnau and company were unable to secure the rights to the original novel, so being the obsessive sort of people, they just went with the story, changing the names and locations, but not much else.  Which really pissed off Stoker's widow.  She had all the prints collected up and destroyed.  And thus we would have lost a timeless gem from the silent era.  Except that one or two of the copies were not destroyed.

In Wisborg, Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is tasked by his boss, Herr Knock (Alexander Granach) with going to Transylvania to secure a deal with Count Orlok (Max Schreck) to buy a house in Wisborg (coincidentally an abandoned castle next door to Hutter). 

Upon arriving in Transylvania most of the residents try to discourage him from continuing on his mission.  They talk of werewolves and monsters, but Hutter dismisses the superstitions.

When he arrives at the Count's castle he is met by Orlok.  And despite several bizarre incidents, including the count trying to suck the blood from a cut on Hutter's finger, Hutter and Orlok are able to seal the deal.  Only after he has completed the deal does Hutter discover some truly bizarre behavior, including discovering Orlok's true nature as a vampire.

Back in Wisborg, the ship carrying Orlok and his coffins arrives.  Orlok has killed off the entire crew, but the authorities blame it on a plague.  There is a panic within the town as people are encouraged to stay inside to avoid contracting the "plague".  Of course, all of Orlok's victims in the town are attributed to this "plague" so no one but Hutter seems to be aware of the imminent danger of the new resident.

Hutter's wife, Ellen (Greta Schroder) discovers a book that Hutter has brought back with him and tries to use it to defeat the vampire.  The story takes a different turn here as, instead of Orlok escaping back to his home after being discovered, he sticks around.  Mainly because he is very intent on seducing Hutter's wife.  Which, of course, proves to be his undoing.

The classic film is now available in various forms, since it is in the public domain.  I highly suggest you look for some recording like Criterion to watch it, however.  Some companies take some liberties with the film.  The most egregious one, my first attempt to find a copy, is put out by November Fire Productions.  Avoid this one at all costs.  Not only do they cut down the film somewhat, but they add (egads) sound, with people actually speaking.  It is not, as the back of the package says "a great way to experience this vampire classic".

Shadow of the Vampire (2000):

Shadow of the Vampire takes a look at the production of the aforementioned Nosferatu.  In 1921 Friedrich (F.W.) Murnau (John Malkovich) endeavored to film what he considered to be his masterpiece, a film somewhat based on the Bram Stoker novel Dracula.  Although the film is entirely fictional, we get some insight into the time period, if not an accurate portrayal of the principal figures.

Murnau is wrapping up production in Berlin, and preparing to transfer everyone on site to film scenes in Czechoslovakia.  Waiting there for them is the actor that Murnau hired to be his vampire, Max Shreck (Willem Dafoe).  Shreck is described to the rest of the crew as what is surely on of the earliest incarnations of a "method actor".  Murnau tells his crew that Shreck will only appear in costume and must be addressed by his character name of "Count Orlok".

None of the crew has ever heard of the guy.  Murnau says he found him in the Russian theater company of Stanislavski ( a well known theater director of the time).  As with any production there are a few dissenters, especially from his producer, Albin Grau (Udo Kier) who objects to an unknown being cast in the title role.  He also gets some flak from his female star, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack) who objects to being taken away from Berlin at the height of the theater season.

On location, the scene takes on some bizarre turns.  Wolfgang Muller (Ronan Vibert) starts to act more and more like he is suffering from exhaustion.  And Schreck/Orlok makes several attempts to actual complete his "transformation" to a vampire by trying to drink the blood of one of his co-stars.  Gradually it is revealed that Count Orlok is not really an actor but someone that Murnau found living in the castle already. (And, although unknown to the rest of the crew, Murnau knows that Orlok is really a vampire, and has lived for centuries in the castle.)

A battle of wills occurs as Orlok and Murnau fight over whether Orlok has any rights to make Murnau's production crew victims for his bloodlust.  Midways into the film a great exchange occurs between Orlok and Murnau over whom may or may not be indispensable to the production.  Murnau threatens Orlok, but Orlok is unimpressed, since he feels that after centuries he is almost indestructible.

The only thing that Murnau can hold over Orlok is his promise that Orlok can have Greta as one of his victims, but only if he, Orlok, plays along and behaves himself until the final scene.  But Orlok is his own man (vampire) and doesn't exactly conform completely.

Obviously the movie is fiction (since no sane person believes vampires exist).  The movie takes a few liberties while covering the history behind the story. Several of the crew die, when in fact  all of them went on to longer careers in film. The movie is entertaining on it's own merits.  The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Makeup (losing to How the Grinch Stole Christmas).  And Willem Dafoe lost an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actor to Benicio del Toro (in Traffic).  Roger Ebert named it as one of his "Best 10 Movies of 2000".

An anecdote that I thought was interesting.  The original title was going to be Burned to Light, but when Dafoe asked director Merhige "Who's Ed?, he changed it.  Dafoe supposedly thought the title was going to be Burn Ed to Light...  (The anecdote may be apocryphal.  I have trouble believing it.  But it's interesting nonetheless).

Time to head home.  Drive safely folks.  And don't pick up any hitchhikers with really long fingernails and ugly features.



  1. Nosferatu is my favourite film adaptation of Dracula ever, even if it was unauthorized! I think it still holds up very well today. I really enjoyed Shadow of the Vampire as well, although one has to take it for what it is--a piece of absolute fiction. After all, Max Shreck had already had a stage career and appeared in two films prior to Nosferatu!

    1. Its pretty good. And although the film doesn't get many raves I like the Frank Langella one too. Thanks for reading.

  2. Hope you had a great Halloween—great post on a classic, which I love, as well as the fun homage, which I also enjoy.
    - C

  3. I really like Nosferatu, and the 1979 remake. As you said, the thought of sound makes me want to run away. Definitely a no no. I watched Shadow of the Vampire for the first time not long ago and enjoyed it, even though as you say, it’s rather fantastic. I like how humour ran through your review but you didn’t mock either film. Thanks so much for contributing this witty article to my Blogathon!

    1. THere's not much to mock in the original. Too well made. Thanks for reading.


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