What if vampires aren’t misunderstood souls who can’t help what they’ve become? Let’s suppose for a second that they aren’t dangerous pouty young people, who just want for the right gal who can assist them in filing down their canines and teach them how to love. What if a Vampire is a cataclysmic force of nature? Not the carrier of blood borne Spanish Fly or plasma packed with Tween angst, but a fucking plague vector, that lives in isolation for fear of infecting and depleting his life sustaining quarry. With a face like an auger and fangs dripping toxic komodo stew, this specter feeds in silence, spreads fever, then disappears like a nimble rat into the long shadows. THAT is a Vampire I can get behind. Of course, I’m not imagining a new incarnation of the celluloid bloodsucker rather just rehashing one of the first, F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Classic “Nosferatu”. Though it was based heavily on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the execution was a mixture of pastoral realism and German expressionism. The Rorschach shadows and hellish angles beckoned the viewer into a simple tale of a medieval town visited by a demon who spreads deadly filth and poisons all that he touches.
For those of you who have never seen “Nosferatu” it is very much the same as Stoker’s tale. Set in (the fictional town) Wisborg, Germany in 1938 it follows a bubbly young businessman named Thomas Hutter (anglicized to Jonathan Harker in this version to reflect Stoker’s original character name). The happy-go-lucky young buck is sent to a remote castle in the Carpathian Mountains to finalize a real estate deal brokered between his boss Mr. Renfield and the reclusive Count Orlok. Hutter leaves his beautiful wife Ellen behind but takes along her picture on the long journey east. Upon arriving in Transylvania the locals warn him about the “Land of the Phantoms” and try to convince him that continuing on is a foolish endeavor. Undaunted Hutter makes contact with the Count and for his troubles receives a bite on the neck after falling asleep in the castle. The Count becomes enraptured with the picture of Ellen that Thomas carries and immediately signs papers to buy a dilapidated building in Wisborg that is just across the canal from the young couple. Back in Wisborg, Orlok’s telepathic influence has already turned Renfield into a mad lackey and set Ellen to fearing for her husband’s safety.
Orlok leaves Hutter in a feverish stupor at the castle and heads west to Wisborg with a grouping of caskets for luggage and accommodation. When the doomed ship he is traveling on reaches the tiny German hamlet the crew is dead and plague ridden rats spill forth from Orlok’s coffins into the streets of the town. The Count moves into his new digs and begins stalking Ellen from across the canal. Meanwhile Hutter bedeviled by pyretic swoons slowly makes his way back from the castle. He is nursed to near health by the Transylvanian villagers then returns to Wisborg with a vampire book that details all the bloodsucker do’s and don’ts. When he and Ellen are reunited she discovers the book and takes it upon herself to stop Orlok and return her plague-riddled town to normal.
Fiddling with Cinematic classics is largely a losing proposition. Ted Turner’s colorization binge in the late 80’s and 90’s showed that updating good films technologically is an unnecessary chrono-centric indulgence that does not always attract scores of new viewers. A similar lesson was learned by those who thought that some 20 years after its initial release; Star Wars could be qualitatively improved through CG augmentation. Almost all great movies become dated, but it is seldom just a technological problem. Shooting and acting styles change and fashions age quickly from haute couture to hot mess. It is unavoidable, it is also the reason that I count atmosphere as the single most important element of film production. You can screw up a good many ingredients of a film but if it you leave your viewer in a moodspace they will remember your movie.
In the last regard “Nosferatu” is a perfect film. The pantomimic glee of Gustav von Wangenheim (Thomas Hutter) and many of his co-stars is a hard fit for viewers born long after the silent era. But as much as those performances don’t work a lot of the films other drawbacks actually function as strength. Much of the dated technology of the era has bent back around over time to lend fresh strangeness to the film. Orlok loading his coffins on a cart in triple time (low frame rate) is a technique so out of vogue that it now reads as unnerving and creepy.
The film is also littered with what are now iconic images, made no less impressive by their age or prevalence in film history. Max Schreck as Orlok remains the most menacing looking vampire ever committed to film and the angles that were chosen for him endure as marvels of composition that continue to inform the genre. The ideas of a vampire as a disease vector and sunlight as a vampire killer were introduced into modern lore by this film. Furthermore the presentation of no real viable opposition to Schreck’s rat faced fiend and the empty, effortless terror of his existence combine to create bleakness with few tonal parallels in the annals of horror cinema.
So why update the music when the tenor of the movie is just fine with the existing score? The short answer is that the film is public domain in the United States and it is an inexpensive thing to do, especially when you are also just going to use pre-existing music as has been done here. On its face I am not opposed to it. If adding a new soundtrack makes it more palatable to contemporary audiences, go for it. That said it better be a well crafted act of love and it should endeavor to amplify the timeless qualities and bridge the dated stuff. “Nosferatu: The Gothic Industrial Mix” has moments where the new sound really tucks in and around the picture to nicely embellish the mood. Unfortunately, it also has passages where the music transitions are ill-timed or just don’t happen at all. A more careful construction with access to broader music may have transformed the project and provided a totally new way of seeing the film. As it stands you have a classic film that is ultimately underserved by the sonic update.