F.W. Murnau’s take on Dracula is a classic of horror cinema. Max Shreck’s Count Dracula is frightening, grotesque, and overflowing with otherworldly menace, and his scenes in the movie still manage to frighten even today. The shots where we see his shadow ascend the staircase to Mina’s apartment, and his shadowed fist reach into her room and clutch her heart are masterpieces of German expressionism and remain striking visuals even today.
It’s actually a miracle that we’re even able to watch Nosferatu today, much less this excellent transfer to DVD. Bram Stoker’s estate successfully sued Murnau and all copies were supposedly destroyed as a result of that lawsuit. Luckily for us, versions of the film were saved in different countries and this masterpiece survived.
Because of the various versions and their translations into other languages, there are interesting differences between this transfer of the film and others. The version of Nosferatu I’m most familiar with had the vampire called Count Orlok, and the other characters—Jonathan Harker, Mina, Professor Van Helsing—similarly renamed. In this DVD, however, the characters are referred to by their names in the novel, with one or two minor exceptions (Mina is now Nina). These changes are incidental to the story, which remained the same, but they are interesting from a film history point of view.
Now, I’ve referred to this movie as a “classic” and a “masterpiece,” but that doesn’t mean it’s without its faults. This was filmed in 1923, when film-making was still in its infancy, and it may come off a bit silly to younger audiences that have never watched a movie made before the 1980s. The acting is overly expressive and melodramatic due to this being a silent film, and even I couldn’t help laughing a couple of times. The special effects are primitive, and the overall visual quality is dark and grainy. None of those points really matter, though, because the overall effect is far greater than the sum of its parts. There are masterful shots in this movie, and some truly haunting moments where the director brilliantly uses light and shadow to create a dark and frightening effect.
Horror aficionados should pick up this DVD for Nosferatu alone, but there are other goodies here that make this worth buying. Included with Nosferatu is another movie, Carl. Th. Dreyer’s Vampyre. Filmed in 1932 and based off of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” which was a great influence on Bram Stoker, the story centers on Alan Gray, a young man on vacation in the German countryside who becomes embroiled in the battle for a young woman’s soul as she is slowly killed by a vampiric crone.
Like Murnau, Dreyer employs light and shadow to create some incredible images. Shadow figures dance and menace Gray and the young woman, and the crone, while not decked out in makeup like Max Shreck, still radiates an otherworldly, grotesque presence.
The only problem I had with Vampyre lied with its subtitles. The only language track is in German, so I had to watch it with the English subtitles. That in and of itself is no hassle, but large slates of text are provided between scenes to move the story along, and both the text and the subtitles are white, so reading the translation was a bit difficult at times. Why they didn’t make the subtitles a different color, I don’t know, but that would have made my life much easier.
Subtitles aside, Vampyre is another excellent gothic vampire movie and a great companion to Nosferatu. Having them both on the same DVD is a real treat and I know I’ll be watching both movies many times again. Good thing Halloween’s not too far away!
Both movies are presented in fullscreen with no aspect ratios given. No sound specifications are listed for the audio, either. Obviously, this isn’t a concern for Nosferatu, nor is it really for Vampyre considering it’s more visual than aural in nature. The video quality is much better for Vampyre for obvious reasons, but both transfers are fine considering the age of the film they’re working with.
Two bonus films are included here. The first is a French wildlife documentary on vampiric animals, like the eponymous bat. The second is a very interesting interview with Carl Dreyer. His accent is a bit thick, so at times it’s a tad difficult to understand what he’s saying, but his thoughts on movie-making and the role of cinema are fascinating and well worth a listen even if it’s visually bland (all you see is a still photo of a man—I’m assuming Dreyer—holding his hand up to the camera, blocking your view).
Le Vampire (1945)
Carl Dreyer on Cinema (1955)
This DVD is a real treat for horror fans. Nosferatu and Vampyre are classics that helped define the vampire genre; an absolute must for horror fans. Highly recommended.
Walking Shadows presents Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Directed by F.W. Murau. Starring Max Shreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, and Greta Schroder. Written by Henrik Galeen. Running time: 80 minutes. Rated RATING. Released on DVD: June 22, 2010.