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What makes NOSFERATU scary?

Tonight I was at a screening that proved how F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Dracula film, NOSFERATU, stands the test of time. You can watch it online via YouTube, but if you can this Halloween weekend, get yourself to a screening with live music. The extra oomph a live organ provides transforms the film from a historical, over-the-top expression-fest to a truly terrifying event. Don’t believe me? My seven-year-old kid could barely sit through the first ten minutes he was so utterly terrified.

So once you add a score – and a really good one at that – it’s easy to look beyond the elements that seem dated now, namely the acting. Acting styles have changed so radically in the past eighty years that we can barely recognize what now seems like camera-mugging as the same craft. But beyond that, not much else seems dated. In fact, the shot construction and framing feel very sophisticated. When Ellen (Greta Schroder), our sweetheart of a protagonist, is discovered sleepwalking just as the dreaded vampire is attacking his first victim miles away, we see her eerily tip toe through the frame far in the distance, the shot size diminishing her presence but emphasizing her fleeting, gorgeously scary physicality as she inches along a high terrace wall.

And the Count himself, the infamous Max Schreck? Over the top, to be sure, but framed eerily in wide shot with those bulging eyes and hands the size of a gorilla’s hanging at his sides, he brings freak to a new level. That was my entire experience, in fact. So if you YouTube NOSFERATU, grab an instrument or an album, and play it loud.

–AH