Nosferatu, A Silent Horror Film Screened on a Cold Dark Night in Hudson Falls
Lon Chaney Sr. was considered the master of disguise in silent movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of The Opera, and The Unholy Three. But before those movies were made, there was Nosferatu, a 1922 silent film that fundamentally stole the theme and plot of the copyrighted novel Dracula by Bram Stoker with few changes except the name. The Strand in Hudson Falls showed the film on a big screen Friday night, January 20th, accompanied by a modern orchestral recording of the original soundtrack composed by Hans Erdmann that was as much a part of the ambiance as the visual aspects of the movie.
Actor Max Schreck’s flesh-crawling appearance owns this century-old movie like Elvis owned every stage he ever played. Schreck, as Count Orlok, is a human rat skulking around in search of enough victim’s blood to sustain his very existence for another day. Or I should say another night.
Daylight destroyed him. Lured to the bedside of a beautiful damsel Ellen, Count Orlok tells her husband Hutter, “Your wife has a beautiful neck.” She seduces Orlok to her bedside. He forgets the hour and disappears in a cloud of dust as the rising sun shines a fatal light on his soul.
Lon Chaney would put his body through agonizing contortions for his characters, but even as a child, I knew there was a “normal” guy behind the makeup. With Max Schreck, who played Count Orlok, I was never quite so sure.
In character, Schreck’s body looks like a refugee from a Nazi concentration camp. Deathly thin, he sports facial makeup much scarier than that of Bela Lugosi, who a decade later would play Dracula in the screen’s first authorized adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel. Lugosi looked almost regal in appearance except for his fangs and spoke his few lines phonetically because he didn’t speak English. Christopher Lee was downright sensual in his Hammer Films’ Dracula persona in the ’50s. No, when any of his victims first laid eyes on Max Schreck, they knew they were in deep shit.
I was curious to see how a 21st-century movie audience that’s survived the pandemic would react to a movie a century old about an almost human character that’s unseen until it’s too late. An invisible horror, an almost too hideous grim reaper to be thought of outside of uncontrollable nightmares that send us screaming into the night.
While the original Dracula would “infect” his victims, who also become vampires, Count Orlok’s victims might take solace in that they would immediately go to heaven. But the atheists faced the cold reality that the vampire’s painful bite and the resulting draining of their lifeblood would be their last slow, if sensual, experience.
The contemporary post-pandemic reality with lunatic politicians draining society’s lifeblood mimics the horror of a human rat with fangs. So, I wondered how an audience in a theater at the edge of urban civilization on a Friday night in January feasting on free popcorn would react to this allegory.
With temperatures hovering at 34 degrees and spitting rain/snow/sleet on the slick streets of Hudson Falls, The Strand Theatre attracted a mere handful of diehard horror movie fans whose reactions to the film amounted to tepid applause and occasional snickers of laughter as when the translated words of the monster proclaimed that our hero’s wife had a beautiful neck.
Personally, I’m a horror movie aficionado. I find Nosferatu one of the scariest movies ever made, except for The Night of The Living Dead. In my mind, I find its successors in the Universal films of the ’30s and ’40s, like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Invisible Man, to be milk toast in today’s movie culture. The splatter and slasher movies of the late 20th century are akin to pornography. More recent horror films tend to be more atmospheric, like Nosferatu. Still, the nemeses in the best of them are psychological monsters who are ourselves, and God knows, today’s news broadcasts, with their emphasis on ratings, are little more than horror movies masquerading as truth for the voyeurs in all of us.