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Saturday, October 18, 2014

It is extremely important, when reviewing classic movies, to make sure that you review them from two points of view. The first thing to remember is that you must take the movie in context to the time when it was released. What did the movie accomplish that no other movie before it was able to do? What kind of trails did the movie blaze that have since been trod over by thousands of filmmakers?

The other element to a classic is how does it stand the test of time? There are plenty of old movies that introduced new elements to filmmaking that are not classics. A classic is just as relevant today as it was the day it was released. In 1922, Nosferatu was released to critical acclaim and it remains a classic to this day. But for a while there, we almost lost this classic forever.

When Nosferatu was first released, its initial engagement was cut short by a court order barring the movie from ever being shown again. The estate of Dracula author Bram Stoker successfully sued the Prana Film Company for copyright infringement and stopped the movie from being shown. The lawsuit also ruined Prana and put it out of business.

Every copy of Nosferatu was supposed to be destroyed, but a copy that was sent to a French theater was never destroyed. Years later, after the film had become public domain and no longer illegal, that remaining copy was discovered and a few other copies were also brought to light. Thankfully, the film industry was able to preserve this classic and make it available to film buffs all over the world.

Nosferatu established several important film elements that are still used today. The idea that a vampire can be killed by sunlight was created by Nosferatu director F.W. Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen. Nosferatu also set the stage for the way in which horror movies would be filmed. The deliberate walk of Nosferatu and the imagery used to develop fear would all become staples for today’s filmmakers.

Is Nosferatu still scary today? Absolutely. It is terrifying. But, unfortunately, it is also extremely confusing. Murnau was more of an artist than a film director, so he was unfamiliar with any groundbreaking ways to film scenes at night. Instead, he filmed almost everything during the day and then tried to use different colored filters to get the effects of night and day. He fails miserably, and it makes the film difficult to understand.

For example, there are several scenes where Nosferatu is obviously walking in daylight. The shadows on the buildings and the glare of the sun on the windows of homes makes it obvious. But we are supposed to believe that these scenes are taking place at night. There were methods for filming at night available to Murnau, but he preferred his filters.

The movie, at times, looks like it was made by an art student who was experimenting with different camera tricks. For some reason, right in the middle of a scene that shows Hutter (our hero) being transported to Nosferatu’s castle in a covered carriage, the film suddenly goes into a negative mode for about 30 seconds. It probably looked cool in 1922, but it serves no purpose. It is scenes like this that make me wish a film director had worked on Nosferatu instead of an avante garde artist.

There are scenes in Nosferatu that are absolutely creepy. We have the scene where the procession of coffins is being carried down the middle of the street and into a church. Then we have the scene where Nosferatu takes his first bite out of Hutter. Even today, these scenes are creepy and scary. That is what I love about this movie.

The plot of the story is disjointed and it seems like Murnau and Galeen tried to sew together too many unrelated plot points into a single story. But, it is important to remember that they were desperately trying to make a Dracula movie that did not look like a Dracula movie. So it was necessary to bring in other story elements to try and elevate the feeling of complete helplessness for the citizens of the small town of Wisbourg, Germany. As disjointed as the plot lines appear to be, they actually do accomplish the goal of creating nothing but misery for Wisbourg and the audience.

The rock band Queen used some scenes from Nosferatu in its video for the song “Under Pressure” and that is where many people from my generation were first introduced to the movie. But a younger movie fan will have to look deep to find a reason to want to watch this movie as the instances of Nosferatu in popular culture have all but vanished.

Do yourself a favor and watch Nosferatu at least once. You may think that you loved it, or you may think that you hated it. But I guarantee that you will never forget it.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5

George N Root III is a movie fanatic and depressed that the drive-in is closed for the season. But you can read classic movie reviews all winter long and have a chance to expand your movie collection.

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