A SHORT HISTORY OF VAMPIRE MOVIES – PART I THE 1920’S
NOSFERATU, A SYMPHONY OF TERROR 1922; Prana (Germany) (B&W); Director: F.W. Murnau; Screenwriter: Henrik Galeen, based on the novel by Bram Stoker; Camera: Fritz Arno Wagner & Gunther Krampf.
This silent masterpiece of the horror film is the first “true” screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel, Dracula, published in 1897, however, there are rumors that a Hungarian version of the novel entitled DRAKULA was made in 1921 and directed by Karoly Lajthay.
NOSFERATU was directed by one of Germany’s greatest filmmakers, F. (Friederich) W. (Wilhelm) Murnau, who, at the time, was a young director of the German school of expressionism. Murnau, along with Fritz Lang, who directed METROPOLIS (1926), is one of the greatest directors from the classic period of silent films. NOSFERATU was clearly Murnau’s masterpiece, following the success of his earlier film DERJANUSKOPF (1920), based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Murnau did not take the most ethical approach in adapting Stoker’s Dracula to the screen. Dracula was still in copyright in 1921 when the film went into production. Unlike other filmmakers who acquired the rights to adapt the story onto the screen from Stoker’s widow, Murnau simply proceeded to make his film, disregarding copyright laws, which were somewhat slack at the time. The film was adapted to the screen by Henrik Galeen. Galeen had co-scripted with Paul Wegener the first version of DER GOLEM (1914), and later went on to script Paul Leni’s WAXWORKS (1924). The script written by Galeen was quite faithful to the novel, however, Murnau took several precautions in the making of his bootlegged version. To avoid paying royalties to the copyright owners of Dracula, (Stoker’s widow), Murnau changed the name of the script from Dracula to Nosferatu. He also altered the names of the characters and the film’s setting. Transylvania became Germany and Bremen was substituted for London. Count Dracula became Count Orlock; Jonathan Harker became Waldemar Hutter; Professor Van Helsing became Professor Bulwer; and Renfield was changed to Knock.
Despite the name and setting changes, the premise remained relatively the same as the novel and, in fact, the screenplay by Henrik Galeen is more faithful to the Stoker novel than the Universal and Hammer versions that followed.
The most drastic difference from the Stoker novel and this film is the vampire’s physical appearance. Count Orlock, portrayed superbly by actor Max Schreck as a hellish demon, appears as a bald, human rodent-type creature; a monster that appears to have just risen from its foul smelling grave. Unlike Stoker’s mysterious and handsome noble character, Orlock wore no tuxedo or cloak, nor did he bid fair maidens welcome. Instead, he preyed upon innocent victims like a bubonic plague, satisfying his unquenchable thirst for human blood. Schreck’s Orlock was and still is the most hideous vampire ever to prowl the screen. With pointed ears, a pale face, razor sharp teeth and claws, the hellish demon leads his legions of rats from the subterranean levels of Germany and sails to Bremen where a terrible plague strikes the town. The demon vampire is eventually destroyed when the film’s heroine sacrifices her own life and soul to the vampire. She keeps Orlock occupied until sunrise by allowing the foul creature of the night to slowly drain her blood. In the morning, Orlock perishes from exposure to the sun’s lethal rays.
NOSFERATU was never given wide distribution. The film’s faithfulness to the Stoker novel forced it out of circulation because of copyright infringements enforced by Florence Stoker. Murnau was ordered to withdraw the film in July 1925. The court also ordered that all negatives and prints of the film be destroyed, but obviously, NOSFERATU survived luckily), and the film was screened in London three years afterwards, followed by its first American screening in 1929. Today, NOSFERATU is considered by film historians as one of the greatest silent horror films ever made.
NOSFERATU was apparently remade in Italy in 1971 as HANNO COMBIATO FACCIA (THEY CHANGED FACES), directed by Corrado Farina for Garigliano Films. The film follows the same plot of NOSFERATU, only gangsters are substituted for vampires (sounds much like INNOCENT BLOOD made in 1992). A more faithful remake was made in color in 1979 with Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula rather than Count Orlock.
LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT
1927; MGM (B&W); Director: Tod Browning; Screenwriter: Waldemar Young from an original story by Tod Browning; Camera: Merritt Gerstad.
During the mid 1920’s, American film companies became more involved with the growing genre of horror films, mainly as a result of many superior and commercially successful German pictures such as DER GOLEM (1914,1916 & 1920), THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919), DER JANUSKOPF (1920), NOSFERATU (1922) and several others. Actor Lon Chaney, Sr. was the leading horror film star in America at a time, several years before Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff rose to fame. The actor was most famous for his monstrous movie characterizations in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).
In 1927, the actor played a pseudo vampire in the first American vampire film, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. The film was based on the story The Hypnotist by Tod Browning, who also directed the film.
For years, there had been much discussion about this film and how it compared to its remake, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935), which Browning also directed and which starred Bela “Dracula” Lugosi. However, because LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT is virtually a lost film (although there seems to be a rumor that a print may exist in a private collection in England), it is therefore impossible to compare the two films equally and fairly.
Supposedly LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, like its remake, leads the viewer to believe that there really is a vampire (played by Chaney) running around an old castle, when really the vampire is later revealed as being a police detective in disguise during the film’s climax. The vampire trappings were staged throughout the film to frighten a murderer into disclosing his involvement with a killing. Chaney assumed both the roles of the detective and the vampire, and the audiences of 1927 were subject to the hoax.
Despite the prank, Chaney’s vampire is quite impressive, and the supernatural elements prior to the revelation of the hoax are quite effective. As with his highly memorable and distorted creations in both THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the actor delivers a frightening characterization of a movie vampire, complete with formal wear, top hat and a set of rigid fangs that cover his entire mouth.
By 1927, Chaney was the undisputed master of the American horror film. Unfortunately, Chaney passed away in 1930 just before production began on Universal Pictures’ version of Stoker’s novel. One can only wonder how Chaney’s Count Dracula would have been depicted had he portrayed the character in the Universal classic that followed in 1931. Many have speculated, but chances are his Dracula would not have been the suave nobleman that Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula is today.