Bring your carving knives—it’s time for Reverse Shot’s fifth annual weeklong “Great Pumpkins” celebration. Usually during this festive time of the year we bemoan the lack of great contemporary horror movies while recommending seven scary selections from years past (which needn’t be exclusively horror films, per se, but which have to be appropriately Halloween-y in some way—see complete list below of prior Pumpkins). In 2009, we were able to take a break from deploring the fright-flick landscape, in the light of such terrific terrors as Drag Me to Hell, Paranormal Activity, Orphan, and, expanding the boundaries of the category a touch, the sensationally creepy Coraline. Now, in 2010, there’s no such luck. We’ve had silly Splice (which has its defenders, I suppose, but which seems to me a half-baked Cronenberg riff with ten too many unintentional howlers) and the momentarily effective if forgettable Frozen (which requires a little category expansion itself). For me, the jury is still out on The Last Exorcism, though it appeared to be promisingly low-fi. Otherwise, there was a bunch of stuff not a lot of people seemed to see or care much about: The Crazies? My Soul to Take? Hatchet II? (By the way, what and when exactly was Hatchet I?) It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Shutter Island was as close to horror as Scorsese’s come since Cape Fear, though its impressively Grand Guignol atmosphere got drowned out by its somewhat tasteless reliance on real-life horrors to help boost its dramatic credibility (not to go into detail, but let it just be said that Rivette’s famous abhorrence of The Tracking Shot in Kapo could never have compared to the outrage he might feel if he saw Scorsese’s own tracking shot down a line of Holocaust victims as they’re being machine-gunned to death…but I digress).
Horror moviemaking this year has been frightening indeed (and I'll happily refrain from any particular sociopolitical diagnosis—there's still the same mix of torture porn and slasher remakes from any other recent year). So I can think of no better way to start this lineup of Pumpkins than by getting almost as far away as possible from 2010—all the way back to 1922, in fact, to F. W. Murnau’s still chilling chestnut Nosferatu.
Why revisit this oft invoked, screened, and studied adaptation of Bram Stoker now? Well, because I had the pleasure of taking it in this weekend at the glorious Loews Jersey Theatre in Jersey City, one of the country’s few remaining movie palaces. Renovated and reopened by a nonprofit volunteer organization almost ten years ago, the monstrously beautiful movie house has remained something of a nicely kept secret; the audiences for their monthly film screenings have been ever growing in size but have remained exclusive enough that there’s a palpable camaraderie amongst those who show up. Though the 1929 entertainment temple has been made once again into a usable event space, it still feels like it’s filled with phantoms. Bedecked and gilded with detail in every gorgeous nook and cranny, the Loews Jersey is inviting yet austere—its chandeliers glisten majestically above, almost taunting visitors with the luxuriousness of a bygone era; mirrors surround the second-floor balcony landing, so that one might see figures passing from the corner of one’s eye wherever it may dart; the haunting pipe organ blasts ominous entrance music as audiences shuffle in from the ornate lobby to their seats. All in all, an absolutely appropriate place to watch Murnau’s iconic work of expressionism, grasping out at us as an apparition from the dark ages (of movies). Even if this particular Loews Jersey outing felt considerably less hush-hush (recent publicity, including a Village Voice choice in their Best of New York issue, resulted in a huge turnout), the ghostly quality of the place, its intense blast of nostalgia, and the resplendently ominous live organ accompaniment contributed to an extraordinarily uncanny viewing experience.
Despite the richly evocative surroundings, it’s the film that remains most bewitching of all. Nosferatu retains its stark and shadowy dreadfulness, in a way that elevates it above all other Stoker adaptations, whether from Tod Browning, Terence Fisher, or Francis Coppola. Of course there’s the vampire itself, defined by the famously fearful makeup and performance style of Max Schreck as the film’s Dracula figure, Count Orlok—and with his hawklike stare, sharp fangs and talons, and a ramrod-stiff posture that makes it seem as though he’s on a conveyor belt when he walks, Orlok would indeed seem to be an image from the deepest recesses of anyone’s nightmares. Yet it’s also the way Murnau uses that terrifying face and body within each composition; there’s an astonishing use of space in this film, which seems to get lost in the discussion of the film’s sophisticated deployment of expressionist lighting or parallel editing. When we, and the film’s Jonathan Harker character, Hutter, first see Orlok transformed into the evil creature, it’s from an eerie distance, a long shot from the doorframe of Hutter’s guest room in Orlok’s castle. Orlok stands remotely, and spine-chillingly still, his gaze fixed on us and Hutter. We don't see him move closer, though we know he is approaching; Murnau simply cuts away to Hutter’s horrified expression and fruitless attempts to hide. Then, the latchless door slowly swings open, its impossible creak seemingly audible.
Whether he’s immobile and staring out across the street while clutching a window, rising from a coffin in the basement of a sailing ship as though attached to invisible pulleys, or mounting a staircase in silhouette, claws outstretched, he cuts an intimidating figure, and remains, 88 years on, one of the most effective single moving images ever recorded. This particular incarnation of Dracula, and Schreck’s impersonation of it, are so iconic at this point that his first appearance in the film elicited a round of impassioned, genuinely appreciative (as opposed to ironically distanced) applause from the Loews Jersey audience. The name Max Schreck might not be as recognizable as Bela Lugosi, but it’s the face of the former that will haunt your dreams. Murnau knew in 1922 what so many of today’s horror auteurs don’t seem to grasp—that simplicity can shock. And judging by the audience response to Nosferatu this weekend, many of us still crave that simplicity. Perhaps it’s because what we remember of so many of our nightmares stems less from situations than from single images—usually, in my case, faces. If movies are often reflections of ourselves, then it’s the twisted likeness staring back, mouth agape or grimacing, eyes wide or narrowed, that is perhaps most awful of all. Schreck’s Orlok is not simply a dangerous beast, but something too close to human for comfort.
An American Werewolf in London
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Hush"
The Devil Rides Out
Don't Look Now
The Drop of Water
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
The Last Winter
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The Leopard Man
Meet Me in St. Louis
Night Gallery: "The Cemetery"
Trouble Every Day