Monday, October 28, 2013

Dracula: A Symphony of Horror

Another excerpt from the original chapter on Dracula I would have liked to have seen in my book Vampires' Most Wanted. Poor Flo. She just gets the whole play thing ironed out, is on the verge of inking a deal with Universal for the movie rights to Dracula, and suddenly out of nowhere, someone nearly steals the thunder.

7. That Other Movie

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"
In 1922 Florence Stoker, guardian of her husband’s vampire legacy took on a German film studio and won. Sort of. Dracula was perfect for the sort of eerie expressionism notable in German cinema with movies like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “The Golem.” Businessman Enrico Dieckmann and designer/painter/architect Albin Grau had big plans for their new baby brain child Prana-Film but when it came to the movie business they were out of their league, and their biggest mistake, not acquiring the rights to Dracula from Florence Stoker, would be the company’s last. 

F.W. Murnau
Directed by F.W. Murnau, the title of the film, “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror” borrows the word Bram Stoker used in the novel (though it’s claimed that the term “nosferatu” doesn’t really mean anything) as well as the basic plot. The producers must have realized somewhat the dangerous ground they tread on for some details and names were changed. The vampire is named Count Orlock and Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter sent to work on the business transaction by his employer, Knock, who as the film progresses is the one who has the Renfield-like breakdown. As in the Stoker novel, Orlok ventures to Hutter’s home town, Wisborg, Germany leaving Hutter to find a way to make his escape and follow behind. When Hutter confronts him, Orlok bites him and turns him into a vampire. He returns to his wife Ellen who, after reading The Book of Vampires her husband has brought with him, learns that only a woman pure in heart can kill a vampire. Bravely, she gives herself to the lurking vampire, detaining him until the sun is up and he is destroyed. The idea to shoot a vampire film may have come as early as 1916 when, while serving in World War I, Ablin Grau was told by a Serbian farmer that the farmer’s father was a vampire. As with the stage play and the Hollywood movie, “Nosferatu” trims down the novel while keeping the basic premise. 

Unlike the plays and later movie, it offers us a much more frightening vampire in the form of Count Orlok played by Max Schreck (whose name, ironically, means “terror” in German). Schreck’s vampire seems a cross between a bat and a rat, with large pointy ears, rat-like teeth, and claws for fingers that appear to lengthen as the film continues on. The vampire was like the sets, stark with sharp angles and shadows. The use of shadows is particularly impressive, especially toward the end of the film when the shadow of the vampire’s hand runs along Ellen’s body and closes over her heart. The film also offers a much more exciting scene of the ship voyage as Orlok emerges from below deck to kill the crew one by one. 

Max Schrek as Count Orlok
The film premiered at the Berlin Zoo March 4, 1922 to good reviews. Florence Stoker, however, was not impressed. In fact, she was furious. Joining the Society of Authors, she hoped the organization could help her gain some money in her case of copyright infringement against Prana Films. Unfortunately by June of 1922, Prana was close to liquidation, having been driven into receivership by bad debts. The case would drag on for years. If Prana-Films could not offer money for their copyright infringement, then she would accept having the film destroyed. But success was tied up in Prana-Film’s own legal battles and the cost that would be incurred should the Society have to pursue the receiver not only in Germany but every country where he might attempt to sell “Nosferatu.” 

Count Orlok heads to the door of another victim.
Realizing that obtaining money for their copyright infringement would be next to impossible, Florence, after winning appeal after appeal, insisted instead that the copies of the film be destroyed. It was around this time that the stage rights had been sold to Hamilton Deane and the last thing she wanted was this German atrocity gumming up the works. On July 20, 1925 the final judgment was that the prints and negative would be destroyed. As she was to discover, however, there was no real way to ascertain if all the prints and negatives had indeed been destroyed. To her horror, that October, she received a brochure from a new organization The Film Society which would be screening films in the manner of private clubs. Among the titles was “Dracula” by F.W. Murnau. After some investigation it was discovered that when an importer couldn’t find a theater in London to show the movie (it was deemed too horrible), it was offered instead to the Society. Further investigation was unable to discover the actual person who held the copies of the film. 

Eventually “Nosferatu” would surface in America in 1929 but at this point, Florence had bigger fish to fry and was counseled to let the hunt for “Nosferatu” end so as not to negatively influence her negotiations for the Hollywood version of Dracula. In fact, the owner of the print was eventually tracked down and the print purchased for $400 by Universal whose creative people intended to gut it for all it was worth for their movie. It is a lucky thing for film history that Florence Stoker’s raging insistence that the film be totally destroyed was never carried out completely. The film remains an important part of the vampire story on film.

Count Orlok disintegrates in the morning sun. It's believed that this made popular the notion that sunlight is fatal to vampires.

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