by Jaime Grijalba.
This is based around a post I did at Wonders in the Dark on F.W. Murnau, a Master of Horror. This review is also part of my quest to see and review the 366 Weird Movies of the site with the same name.
While this isn’t exactly the first vampire film ever made, this is actually the first feature-length vampire film of all time, but how often do you say that the first movie made in a genre is actually the best of them all? Just today I finished seeing ‘Dracula’ (1992) and I can’t help but notice that the visual nuances and the use of the myth and the image in this 1922 film is still unsurpassed.
How was it that the vampire genre reached its peak and most complete artistic success at such an early time is almost unheard of. And the fact that it’s also one of the scariest films of all time adds more to the legacy and fame that this movie has for the history of cinema and for the viewer and a newer audience.
Specially in the framing, where the image and figure of Nosferatu is always more hidden than shown, when it’s more an insinuation instead of a full-body shot, like in the famous shot of the vampire itself going up some stairs, how it’s not his figure what we see but its shadow, that stretches as the landscape and the things that it sets on move or change sizes/shapes. That one is maybe one of the most powerful and complex shots in the history of cinema.
And maybe this particular shot is the most important and even greatest of all time, the way that it encompases both the classic and the modern aspects of cinema, and the fact that it’s not more than 7 seconds long in all three of its incarnations (the stairs, the reaching hand, the woman’s chest) tells even more about its power:
Those moments are the perfect examples of planned visual filmmaking (a carefully planned decoupage) in terms of how the shadow is supposed to distort and find its way in the places where it will finally cast itself, exactly where its supposed to be and then we realize that it also provoques the effect that its supposed to have on the audience: dread, fear, suspense…
It is also one of the scariest sequences of all time, the final moment of the sequence, the clenches fist imposed over the heart of the woman, that seems to be squished under the mighty magical claws of the vampire, it’s a strong moment that makes it also the scariest film of the ouvre of Murnau (not that there’s much competition in that area).
But let’s go back a bit to what I was saying about those shots and how they are the perfect representation of modern and classic cinema. I say this because they incarnate perfectly both of the particular elements that Deleuze classified as among the possible languages and types that cinema could have: the Image-Movement and the Image-Time.
The first being more related to classic cinema, where the action commanded the image and the cuts, while the second one is much more related to modern cinema in terms of its reflection and how the passage of time is the main source of the images of the film, specially when the images conjured up in the frame change as time passes.
These series of images represent both of them. For example: they are guided by movement (going up the stairs being the most obvious) and are action related, this is an attack from the vampire to the girl, and there’s little that she can do to prevent it; then, when the shadow extends itself and changes its form as it projects itself either on the walls or the skin (and clothes) of the woman, it seems as if there’s no movement, but it’s time itself portraying its passing as the shadows advance not because of a movement, because there’s no body to be connected to.
Besides all this critical mumbo-jumbo there’s still a lot to say about this film, and why not? It’s incredible, it must be one of the most written about films of all time, specially when you take in consideration that it’s a Dracula film, adapted from the Bram Stoker epistolary novel, and having many of the same beats and scenes that would be repeated ad nauseam for the rest of the history of cinema to this day: the arrival to the castle, cut of the finger, fear when he sees the cross, the travel to the new location, the finding of the boat destroyed or decimated.
All of these elements would be so influential that they would make it to each and every one of the most loyal versions of the film to the book. There’s a genuine question that I ask myself here and there when I see new adaptations of such a classic material, it is if there’s anyone who reads the novel when they try to adapt it to a new film.
They could just as easily start watching the films made before them, and maybe there’s no one more influential than Murnau and this particular picture for all of them, the beats and imagery are so scary and iconic that you can’t help but notice it in all of the subsequent films, good or bad, that have come out.