During the gripping final moments of Nosferatu, actor Max Shreck’s bottom lip wobbles, almost imperceptibly.
94 years ago Schreck – playing the titular vampire – delivered a sublime instant of blanching comprehension as the horrific Count Orlock realises his fate is sealed. A detail I’d never noticed in a film I’ve seen countless times.
So it was that after multiple viewings across a number of versions across an even greater number of years, this night with Nosferatu in the Great Hall of the Castle Keep became one of my favourite experiences of this remarkable piece of cinema.
the oppressive, haunting atmosphere of the film worked its sinister magic
Loomed over by the high ceiling and thick, musty sandstone of the grandest room in the castle, just over sixty of us huddled together with a wet, whistly wind doing its worst to worm its way through our scarves and extra jumpers, popcorn in hand with goosebumps equally divided between an entirely appropriate funereal chill and the prospect of watching the granddaddy of cinematic horror in a non-more suitable setting.
With the majority of the crowd experiencing the landmark film for the first time, the initial chuckles at the larger-than-life, overly-emphatic acting of the era dwindled after the first 20 minutes as the oppressive, haunting atmosphere of the film worked its sinister magic, exquisitely complemented by the dank ambiance of the Castle Keep itself.
Nearly a century ago a new film studio was founded in Germany by mysterious occultist Albin Grau, a man newly-inspired to create films about the supernatural having only recently been informed in the midst of World War I that his own father was a member of the undead. A vampire, no less.
In search of suitably diabolical inspiration, Grau lucked upon a nearly-forgotten Victorian horror novel perfect for his dream project. Unable to obtain the rights to the book – Dracula by Bram Stoker – Grau steamed ahead and made the film anyway, changing names and locations in the hope of avoiding any legal entanglements.
It wasn’t to be. Quick to pounce after the film premiered, the Stoker estate launched and won a court case that bankrupted Grau’s studio and successfully ordered all prints burned.
anyone who has ever encountered the film will testify to just how insidiously it gets under the skin and stays there
But one copy had already escaped the court-ordered purge and made its way overseas. Decades of duplicated prints and florid word-of-mouth later, Nosferatu went on to become one of the most influential films in cinema history. Arousing public interest in the obscure novel that inspired it, Dracula itself was reappraised as a literary masterpiece and an entire genre took flight.
Visually striking, technically brilliant and dripping in dread, Roger Ebert famously said that Nosferatu “doesn’t scare us…it haunts us”, and anyone who has ever encountered the film will testify to just how insidiously it gets under the skin and stays there.
While not quite at the blistering level of grandeur as the 2013 BFI restoration, this still-stunning 2006 version played brilliantly when bunched up-close to the big screen, the mesmerising fine detail of the actors and sets standing out beautifully amongst the overwhelming expressionistic shadows and angles of this Weimar-era masterpiece.
the imagery is foul, seething, and iconic; the detail transcendent
The vampire rising bolt upright from a coffin of cursed earth. The man frozen with fear as the undead hovers over him. The abandoned ship sailing into port. The clawed shadow creeping up a staircase. The pointed hands. The unblinking eyes. The glistening teeth. The vampire’s lip, trembling in the only instance of fear inflected upon – and not caused by – the Count himself. The imagery is foul, seething, and iconic; the detail transcendent.
It will be hard to top such a perfectly-staged screening. But then, from a single, nearly-destroyed original print through to the beautifully restored version we’re blessed with today, the dreadful legend of Count Orlock continues to grow, and on the cusp of his second century of life, his future looks to be in rude health indeed.
And if you’ve never seen Nosferatu before, reserve a special place in your future nightmares. You’re going to need it.
Leigh Venus at Newcastle Castle, 15 November 2015
Originally published in two parts at Narc Magazine Online