Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Review: Orlok, the Vampire

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Orlok, the Vampire
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Quality Cheese, MVD Visual
Appx 90 minutes, 1922 / 2009 / 2010

It was a mix of cultures and styles, German Expressionist Cinema and British manners, and a legal battle that would be among the first in the burgeoning film business of Europe that resounded worldwide.

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, directed by F.W. Murnau in 1922, was more than loosely based on Bram Stoker’s gothic novel Dracula, nine years before Bela Lugosi would portray the villainous vampire on film, and decades before the throat-biters would narrowly be seen meekly as sensitive heartthrobs and adversaries for werewolves (and other, less brooding bloodsuckers).

Stoker’s family sued over the copyright, and won. All known copies were ordered destroyed, and it joined Edison’s Frankenstein as one of the great “lost” early film prints. But as with cinematic dinosaurs, nature finds a way, and prints started turning up over the years. As an ironic note, it was no longer under copyright during the advent of the VCR, so copies of it were everywhere, usually on cheap brands at low rez speed (ELP). I had an 8mm Blackhawk Films 200’-reel (20 minutes) version, and one of the bad VHS dubs.

Thus we come to this new release, retitled Orlok, the Vampire… in 3D, yet! Being an old black & white film, it makes total sense this could use the older technology of green and red separation. Two paper glasses are included, I should add.

All copies I’ve seen of this film over the years are a bit scratchy, and it seems each have a different set of title cards; the character names vary among the original book and the film. For example, the real estate agent in Dracula was Jonathan Harker, and in Nosferatu it was Thomas Hutter, but in this new release, it is Jonathan Hutter, a mixture of both.

It is easy to identify who is who from book to film, and Stoker's estate was right to sue (in subsequent copies, Stoker is listed as writer). There is a bit of a stir-up here, though (as Akira Kurosawa also did with Shakespeare’s plays), such as Hutter’s boss, Knock, turning into a “Renfield,” bug-eating character.

There is no denying that this is a groundbreaking and thoroughly effective, creepy film. Max Schreck, as Graf [Count] Orlok, is even taller, stiff, hunched, and lanky than Phantasm’s “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm). Schreck presents a precedent-setting evil figure. Many elements of Murnau version have become iconic, such as Orlok’s raising out of his grave from horizontal to vertical while stiff as a board, used in Coppola’s Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992, and the 1979 remake by Werner Herzog; it’s been copied more than Potemkin’s baby carriage step-bounce (just imagine all the scenes that Brian De Palma could have – err – honored if he had made a remake).

There are so many other moments of brilliance in Mureau’s version, such as Orlok's face sticking through his busted wooden coffin lid, when he stalks Ellen (Mina) from the window across the courtyard, or when the shadow of Orlok’s hand “grabs” Ellen’s heart. Without the over-exaggeration common in German Expressionism such as Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari, this film still retains much of its eerie flavor nearly 90 years later.

The print here is decent, though I do dream of a “restored” version (but as far as I know one does not exist). As for the 3D effects, added by Chris Heuer, it should be pointed out that not all of it is in that format, reserved mainly for scenes with the vampire, the title cards, and the occasional bat used for separating acts (though it goes by so fast, it’s hard to tell if it actually is in 3D with the glasses). The new soundtrack is a bit too fluffy and not sinister enough though, and the grunts and noises the characters make are a bit distracting, so I recommend watching it with the sound off, or turned way down.

This film is a classic. It’s still a joy to watch for me, even after numerous viewings over the years. The camera work and editing is revolutionary, and the actors are still sharp – although they do the typical hands-flinging-about emoting that was common in silent films, a throwback from the non-amplified theater stages. Orlok – even in 3D – is worth a see, and re-viewing.

There are limited extras here, and in fact, there are strangely no chapter breaks, so if you stop and start again, you have to zoom to your last spot. However, there are two different versions on the DVD, one with the 3D and one in normal 2D. Also, there is a bizarre introduction by Troma master Lloyd Kaufman, who does what I’m pretty sure is an off-the-cuff spiel that is so ludicrous – and hysterically funny – that he even refers to this 1922 film as a remake of Schindler’s List! Can a 3D Toxie be far behind?

This review was originally published in FFanzeen.blogspot.com

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