Phantom Sway

Nosferatu: Why this one horror show stands the test of time

He is Death and he approaches.

As a student, fan, purveyor and addict to all things in cinema that batter around our inner fears and emotions in the realms of the horror/suspense/thriller one truly stands the test of time and challenges me to walk alone in the woods without conjuring up the immortal shadows of this sinister brute.

Mammoth sharks, demonic possession, axe wielding cannibals and lycanthropic beings all have their place in my synapse, but vampires have always played into the lore of my haunted mind. The Hammer Films of the late 50’s and 60’s with the duo of Cushing and Lee as hunter and hunted were gorgeous macabre masterpieces, the “Blade” series is entertaining but more action-based than truly terrifying and the road is littered with vamps, pseudo Draculas and bloodsuckers who are too far from the fray (see “The Strain”). The only vampire-based film of the last 10 years that even remotely captured the true horror of these creatures is the murderous “30 Days Of Night”, a vicious and more realistic approach to these unsympathetic feeding machines. It was a relentless and unforgiving assault with blood-soaked snow and no escape other than come at them head on. It dealt the viewer a straight up beating and took away any sexiness, compassion and mystique usually associated with the breed.

However, my love of the vampire creation stems back to 1922 and the era of German silent cinema, so macabre in its own right that even a film about sunshine and playgrounds seems downright fraught with horror. The backstory of the film is “Legion”, as the rights could not be acquired so director FW Murnau basically copied/stole the film with subtle differences and a much more offensive take on the lead character that would have had author Bram Stoker throwing himself off a cliff. The now famous Count Dracula was dubbed Count Orlock and the suave, suited and mannerly Count was now a rat-faced, hollowed eyed monster with incisors that could tear flesh from bone. There was no romance to him. He looked the Devil.

tumblr_nhv1fzKKTu1qbuqcio1_500This is not intended to be a story and plot breakdown so I will get to the 1-2 punch. As the ship the Demeter is transporting Orlock’s coffin and native soil from the Carpathian Mountains to the unaware port of Whitby (never really covered in the film nor the crass subtitles) the scene where Orlock senses dusk has arrived and exits his coffin not in a panther-like manner but in a rigid, straight up magic show kind of movement, my head just explodes. It’s so sinister and godless that I still look at it in awe.

There is a version somewhere out there where it shows him attacking the crew of the vessel but like most footage from that era, it has been destroyed or flat out lost to the winds.

NosferatuShadowBut what haunts me, what really makes my imagination go into overdrive is the scene where a mist-littered cobblestone street is illuminated by a sole lamp post and we see the Nosferatu slowly marching down thru the shadows and finally appear under an archway, his claw like hands and bald head inciting nothing more than dread. This scene is quickly and crudely followed by the now GIF homage of his skeletal outline walking up the house steps and his shadow dancing across the stonewall. He is Death and he approaches. It is this figure, this one scene that follows me on late night strolls, sun-fading hikes in the woods and the darkness at the end of our long hallway in what is supposed to be my safe house.

That’s the thing about our imagination – it runs wild and the term “safe” does not apply. It can take you to dreams, to pleasure and to vivid memories but it can also bring out the soulless, merciless and rodent looking vampires chasing us in our own heads.

What drives me further into discomfort is the folklore that the actor portraying Orlock—one Max Schreck—was himself thought to be a vampire. He vanished after the making of this film and was never heard from again, so legend tells us. PR and marketing machines weren’t in play back then, only the hushed rumors spoken amongst crew members and the inner circles. Of course the brilliant docudrama “Shadow Of the Vampire” starring John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe adds further fuel to this fire. I, for one hope that it is factual…and that one evening I might hear those slow moving footsteps behind me, knowing my imagination is not in the mix.

Justin Press

A metalhead Virginia kid with a Texas spirit, an NYC restlessness and a Utah mountainside soul. Born of an English mother and a German father, an introverted extrovert, the shadow and the illumination: English prose with German fire. I’ve huddled with the poor and downtrodden in Berlin, bathed in the Dead Sea, dined at Buckingham Palace, and broken bread in Tunisia.

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