May 24, 2009

Episode 7: Dracula vs. Nosferatu

On 22 May, we aired an episode devoted to the duality of that big old Count Dracula, and the ways in which this duality has led to the separation of modern fictional vampires into basically two tribes, the Sinister Sexual Deviants (stretching from Bela Lugosi's charming Dracula) and the Riders of the Plague (evolving from Max Schreck's rat-like Count Orlok). What will follow in this post are some observations on the Dracula / Nosferatu movies and comments on certain peculiarities about both. If you find the text boring, just scroll down to the playlist and stream the latest show :)   

About daytime TV and classic horrors

Back in the mid-1990s, a local television station used to run a marathon of old horror movies including Universal and Hammer productions, which it played at noon every working day of the week. Since this was a period of the day immediately after school when nothing was happening and there was little else on TV, I more or less mechanically fell into watching some of the classic movies of the genre, among which were all the original Dracula movies. My reaction at the time was, "Well, they're not that scary," and if compared to some of the PG movies I had seen like The Goonies and the second Indiana Jones for instance, they were indeed pretty tame. Case in point: if one lives by the cinema's version of truth, the bats seem to be much bigger in India than they are in Transylvania. 

But Dracula movies were entertaining in more ways than one. First, there was Bela Lugosi whose appearance and accent were absolutely magnetic even as everyone around him appeared amateurish at best, including the screenplay writer. Then, there was the moment of waiting through the entire duration of Son of Dracula for the characters within to realize what Alucard spelled backwards means, which against better judgment is surprisingly entertaining, much like someone else's stupidity can be amusing. Finally, there was the genuine stuff of horror. I particularly liked Christopher Lee as the Count, for three reasons: 1. there was blood on the screen, 2. the movies were in color, and 3. was it me or was there sexual tension between the vampires and their victims? Just look at the trailer for the first Hammer Dracula and tell me I'm imagining.

Without Van Helsing, there is no Dracula

That Christopher Lee had Peter Cushing as Professor Abraham Van Helsing on his tail was also a big plus in my book. Cushing's Van Helsing is a full-on action hero with strong personality and human failings, which makes him the perfect vampire hunter. Universal's Van Helsing, on the other hand, was played by the epically annoying and bully-ish Edward Van Sloan, the same actor who played Dr. Waldman in Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, and who seemed to be a much worse disease to society (and Bela Lugosi's film) than any vampire in all of history. Sir Anthony Hopkins in Coppola's version is somewhere between these two with a slight spice of Hannibal Lecter thrown in for good measure. In many ways then, the treatment of Van Helsing in the Dracula movies is indicative of the direction and quality of the movies themselves. I'll be watching the movies with Jack Palance and Frank Langella just to see if this is true (note: at this point in time, those two versions seem utterly useless, save maybe for the performances).

Realism instead of sensationalism in Nosferatu

But then, there's Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror, which severely reduces the role of Van Helsing, a move that is very significant to what the movie and its heritage are really about. You see, in the Dracula novel and movies, Van Helsing is part of the solution of the problem, which is a combination of sexual awakening and invasion of foreign values. While Nosferatu is still based on Bram Stoker's novel, it contains no sexual implications whatsoever and most everything in it is sterile and cold to the point that there are no values to stand for. Instead, Nosferatu is about plague and death, and Van Helsing cannot do much about either in the same manner people feel powerless in front of new viruses such as the swine fly nowadays. Like death,  Count Orlok is a remorselessly hungry monster, a fact that Shadow of the Vampire uses to define obsession. 

The above is especially important for Herzog's version of Nosferatu where we get to see death in masses as a direct consequence of the Count's arrival as a flock of mice (in this version, the Count's name reverts to Dracula but the appearance and everything else remains true to Murnau's vision). Some might argue that Klaus Kinski's take the Count does send hints of sexual desire, and one could use the poster below as evidence, but I disagree: the Count himself is a sick man that longs to feel healthy again, and there is nothing sexual in the cold mechanics of his feeding, not from the Count's side and definitely not from Lucy Harker's side. This brutally realistic simplicity in the place of the usual treacherous romanticism is what I love about the Nosferatu films, why I prefer them over the Dracula films (of course, here I'm ignoring the sequel, the maligned Nosferatu in Venice from 1988, which has little in common with its predecessor apart from the lead actor).

Check out the following sequence. It easily fits into my 10 best scenes from the 1970s...

Now it's time for the playlist, which draws heavily from the soundtrack from From Dusk 'Till Dawn as well as some hits from the last century. Click here for streaming.

Finally, before I leave you with the full version of Murnau's Nosferatu I'll just mention 'Salem's Lot and 30 Days of Night. You figure out what they mean... :) 'Till next episode...

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