Last night was Halloween. It was also the first time I felt confident in leaving the house after several days battling a nasty stomach flu.
I celebrated All Hallows by going trick or treating in my Trig Palin getup. The streets were filled with young ladies dressed up as Trig's mom, Sarah Palin. For some reason, they all turned down my requests for "bitty."
Kidding. We actually went to the American Film Institute (my wife is their Fundraising Queen) to catch a showing of F.W. Murnau's German Expressionist classic, Nosferatu. Silent Orchestra — a two man group that composes and performs original music for silent movies— provided inspired live accompaniment. At turns Steve Reich-ian and old-fashioned spookshow, the soundtrack brought an extra dimension to Murnau's visually stunning film.
I've always found Nosferatu (originally released in 1922) to be superior to Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi as the more debonair Count. Definitive in its own right, Dracula is nonetheless marred by stage-y production — perhaps because it was translated for the screen from a play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. The first horror talkie, Dracula's chief special effect was the fact that you could hear the actors' actual voices onscreen. This probably blew minds way back then, but these days, the film feels a bit stilted.
Nosferatu, on the other hand, didn't have the benefit of sound. Instead, Murnau pushes available cinematographic technology to the limits, serving up wicked, hallucinatory visions of an ancient evil set loose upon an unsuspecting hamlet. Watching the flick, it's easy to see how so many of Murnau's techniques have become part of the modern cinematographic lexicon.
My favorite scenes are those that take place on a doomed cargo ship, whose sailors are unwittingly housing a vampire below deck. As the shipmates fall prey one by one to a mysterious wasting illness, Count Orlok (Max Schreck) casts malevolent shadows across the rigging. The coolest part is when the Count rises from a horizontal position in his coffin to taut erectness, without so much as bending a limb.
Did you know that all prints of Nosferatu were ordered destroyed due to a copyright suit brought by Bram Stoker's widow? What survives are essentially bootleg copies. Apparently, Murnau was a serial infringer, having previously shot an unauthorized version of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Hence the changes in character names — Dracula becomes Count Orlok, Jonathan Harker is Thomas Hutter, Renfield is Knock, Mina is Ellen and so on.
One thing that stood out to me this time that I somehow didn't recognize before are the film's Anti-Semitic overtones. Even though Nosferatu was shot in 1922 — twelve years before the Nazi Party's ascendancy — it's depiction of insidious evil is based on gross stereotypes of European Hebrews. It's all there in Orlok's appearance: oversized hooked nose, sooty merchant's frock, stooped shoulders, rat's teeth. All that's missing is a tail.
Despite this disagreeable aspect — which has thankfully been muted by the passage of time — the film is still brilliant. If you haven't yet seen it, or if it's been a while, grab that leftover Halloween candy, fire up the DVD player, turn out the lights and enjoy.
I think we're gonna see Rosemary's Baby at AFI tomorrow. Tonight, we've got VIP tickets to Cirque du Soleil's "Kooza" — weird, I know, but we got a hookup. If you think that's unusual, next weekend we're having cocktails at the home of the French Ambassador. Whatever shall I wear?
My better half is busy making calls for Obama. Three days left!