31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 9 – Look What Your God Has Done to Me – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992/dir. Francis Ford Coppola/USA)

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. Dracula Untold is right at the gates of the fortress, preparing to unleash its bile on the already tarnished legacy of the tale. Is there anybody who can save us from the curse of Dracula that is not Hammer Films? Well, there is, but it’s not even close to perfect enough for mopping up the mess. It’ll just do.

Once upon a time, Francis Ford Coppola was a titan of filmmaking. At the top of the world, the director of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, the Palme d’Or winners The Conversation and the anarchic Apocalypse Now and heading the 70s bad boy auteurs straight out of UCLA and USC. But that is a time well enough long past by the time we reach the era of the movie we are about to hit up. See, like Icarus, Coppola had supposedly went too high over budget and over schedule with his wild dreams as an artist in the infamous production of Apocalypse Now. He didn’t very much clear the financial hurdle so much as just trip over it and he didn’t learn his lesson of caution with that movie.

One from the Heart in 1982 was almost as much too tall a Tower of Babel as Apocalypse Now and this time its financial bombing came crashing down to topple Coppola’s company American Zoetrope – once a beacon of light to new filmmakers looking to create art instead of a business. To add insult to injury, most of the techniques in One from the Heart went on to being fundamentals of film stylization, just the sort of profound innovator of film Coppola liked to fashion himself as. But at what cost, Lois?! AT WHAT COST?! Well, the cost of filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and being laughed at by every critic in the country. Zoetrope was ruined.

But these are stories for another time, same as all the films in between 1982 and 1992 where Coppola became the whipping boy of many a film studio to pay off the debts necessary to keep Zoetrope afloat. Most of these films became failures outright until 1990 when Coppola found himself somewhat back in the consideration of his peers with the return to his magnum opus the Godfather films and, though I personally am disappointed with The Godfather Part III in more ways than one, the movie succeeded financially and critically at the time and made Coppola return to figuring out just maybe one more passion project for himself to really let out his being through film like he once did through Apocalypse Now and The Conversation.

Then came the day that Winona Ryder approached Coppola with a script for an adaptation of Dracula as an olive branch for declining to appear in The Godfather Part III (although it led to one of the most atrocious performances reluctantly put on screen by Sofia Coppola, I can’t really blame Winona for such a good call). Recalling how at one point when he was a camp counselor, he would read Dracula for all the children of the night to sleep to (Questionable approach, but again, I’m the guy who grew up on Sin City and Tales from the Crypt) and figured “why not?”. He knew the potential of it as an epic like Carl Laemmle Jr. didn’t get to make. He wasn’t some noise junkie like Stephen Sommers. He knew how to make pictures. Or at least, he used to know, he just had to get himself back in the gears.

Well, let me be clear, I will start a glowing review about all the wonders of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but first we need to understand that it’s not even close to perfect. And I probably in fact do not need to tell you that when I start reviewing the movie. Most of my friends who I showed it to have had either a mixed reaction or a negative reception towards it. There was never anyone in my peers as enthusiastic about the film as I was, except maybe a girl I was with a few years ago. On one hand, it is a bit dismaying and alienating. On the other, if you want someone to showcase all the shining examples gleaming in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I think you’ve come to no better person than yours truly, the Movie Motorbreath. Let’s get started.

And to begin with, the main intention of Coppola with this film was realizing there really wasn’t a very faithful adaptation to Bram Stoker’s Dracula – from Universal to Hammer to all the other stuff that’s been floating on by. They never really stuck entirely to the story as Stoker told it. A lot got close, but they’d usually dilute details understandably. Coppola wanted to make this movie completely ripped from the pages of the book.

Let’s get things straight: A faithful adaptation does make a good movie. It makes a faithful adaptation. That’s it. A movie stands on its own merit. Most people have a problem realizing that in regards to any film, that the two mediums do not entirely suit each other and sometimes you need to accommodate. I know for a fact that fucked up Universal’s Dracula to go ahead and just about For instance, The Thin Man, fine fine fine book but it’s the only Dashiell Hammett work I had to work through. Add the cadence of William Powell and Myrna Loy, despite its third act deviations, The Thin Man as a movie is a classic of screwball and murder mystery works. Vice versa, we got Stephen King’s The Shining. While the book was actually a pretty fascinating piece on personal demons, the miniseries in general falls short of scares or any real emotional impact.

The best adaptations to me, keep the essence of the source material while either enhancing the themes or perspective or actually making a new one. And surprisingly, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is willing to do that all over the edges of the story. James Hart’s script applies the character to his real-life historical roots and inspirations, namely in the form of Vlad the Impaler, which mixes mythology with a more involving grounding now. It does however use dialogue that merits only the highest classification of acting (and I guess Coppola couldn’t reign that kind of acting in, but more on that later). In addition, there’s a lot more of a sixth sense within watching the picture… if that makes sense (and it really doesn’t since you can only hear and see movies)…

Let me fix it then, unlike the Universal film, there is a dynamic aura within the film. You know what you are meant to feel and have no trouble feeling it because the movie has no problem with grabbing you by your arms and tossing you about. Namely there’s a more erotic and sensual basis within the story (I hope Coppola was not reading to the kids like that). The movie brings out more of the violent sexuality in Dracula to attack Mina and Lucy and even Jonathan Harker with and that’s not exactly a terrible thing. It’s just a lot more evoking, a lot more provocative, and when it comes with a story like Dracula, a horror story, you need a reaction from audiences – that is the point of horror storytelling.

You see, just to quickly go over the story, Vlad the Impaler (Oldman) is a 1400s bad mother in war who returns to find his wife (Ryder) has killed herself after the Turks vengefully sent her a letter claiming to have killed Vlad. When the clergy insists that Vlad’s love has been damned for her suicide, Vlad renounces God and swears to remain on this earth as a human plague.
Fast forward to 1897 and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) has been sent to complete a sale of land in London to Count Dracula’s home in Transylvania. Even a child can tell Dracula is Vlad immortal. Vlad sees Jonathan’s fiancee Mina (Ryder again) in a picture of his and immediately obsesses to the point of imprisoning Harker in his castle and heading straight for London, causing many strange and unnerving events to happen. Jonathan escapes and joins Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and company, who by this point have begun their fight to save Mina’s soul and stop Dracula, in the process avenging a damned beloved.

Anyway, how we get to that ability of evocation is the most marvelous part about the movie. Coppola believed that in the presence of a vampire, things essentially don’t make sense. Vampires should not exist and don’t exist, so when you have to deal with one… the rules of the world change. You get more of a misunderstanding about the atmosphere. And how much more – I don’t want to say subtle because it’s usually right in front of the screen but… – poetic for him to do so than through avant-garde methods reminiscent of the techniques of Murnau and Dreyer. It’s a gigantic toybox of on-camera tricks, like multiple exposure, angles, film reversal, perspective shooting, lens, filters, you name it all, Coppola pulls out of his bag.

We all know how much I am a fucking sucker for practical effects when done right. The process of planning and performing the effects as well as the ambition necessary to go ahead with it makes me admire practical effects a world more than CGI admittedly (and I like CGI too when done right). Coppola brings us back into the world of the story by not just stating we are in Transylvania in the very balance between the 1800s and the 1900s, but by pulling us in with his archaic visual sensibility which is quite frankly a joy to look at. It’s a silent picture except it gets to use sound. It is especially unnerving in the Transylvania scenes, where physics goes completely wonky. Shadows move by themselves, liquids drip upwards, rats scrawl wherever they damn well please and these moments are just inexplicable except that a vampire is in the midst, beware. And each act has its own style (though admittedly the third act is the most generic of them all) – The very prologue going over Vlad’s heinous deeds at war is basically a bunraku shadowplay… the Transylvanian moments feel like a more fleshed out Nosferatu, the intimate scenes between Dracula and Mina is a tragic romance largely lit by candles…

But that’s only part of the visual aesthetic, lovingly captured warmly in a crisp nostalgic brown rot in Transylvania, a black nightly abyss with blue tangents in London’s night scenes by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and then arranged at the most precise order by editors Nicholas C. Smith, Glen Scantlebury & Anne Goursaud, marrying the trippy aspects of the film with the patience of a bedtime story for the doomed. The movie begins by taking its time laying the groundwork that by the first half ends, you’re ready to fight and then, once Van Helsing steps in, the movie raises through setpiece after setpiece of intended moments of reasoning and action. It finds itself skipping over stuff, but we’re really eager in the end to see who will win: Dracula or the humans. And here’s the rub, the script goes the right way of arranging sympathy for both characters without dismissing who is good and who is evil. That’s pretty solid by me.

And these setpieces are magnificent, ripped right out of a Cocteau film. The castle of Dracula is a nightmare of Escher arrangements and crypt-like decadence, a seemingly endless labyrinth of dungeons of stone, while London is imposingly aristocratic, civilized and stuffily Victorian. Nevermind the arena-like arrangement in the snowy gates of Transylvania where the final battle is staged.

Toss inside some frightening makeup that turns Dracula from a human pillar of ash to a very sexy Victorian rock star to an exaggerated anthropomorphic bat and all of the above, plus career-best work by legendary Eiko Ishioda in costume design, ingraining her personality and background of Japanese influences to add to the conglomerative whirlwind that makes Bram Stoker‘s Dracula the shellshock of worlds that it is and we end up with essentially the single most expressionistic piece of filmmaking past the 1950s. And holy shit am I happy with that. I have friends who say it’s basically Coppola on Apocalypse Now excessive ambition and my response to that is “You may be right? But so what?” It works. It gets you understanding the moods and tones and forcefeeds it to you and you swallow it and get involved. Coppola himself wanted the film too look like a great big painting or dressing or decoration for what he insisted were the “jewels” of the feature.

And unfortunately that’s where the film sort of has its weakness.

What Coppola failed to realize was that the acting in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is… pretty godawful, I gotta say. Or maybe he did realize it and for the most part only took what he could get. Or maybe we just have to face the fact that 80s-Present Coppola is fucking terrible at directing actors (and the 70s were a fluke for him) as opposed to just creating visual atmosphere. Whatever the case, a lot of the moments are either dented or damaged (depending on your perspective) by the extremely faulty acting. First off, if they weren’t Gary Oldman, Tom Waits or they weren’t doing their own accent like Richard Grant was, they all sound ridiculous. I can’t put a finger on what the fuck Hopkins’ accent is meant to be, Reeves is just laughably not even capable of a Transatlantic and Bill Campbell is a fucking stereotype of Slim Pickens proportions with his accent. Then there’s the fact that what these actors are discussing at many moments, the lines that would come out of their mouths is very imperative to the situation at hand in the story, but they kind of let it slide down and then overact unessential lines. Like for instance, when Dr. Seward (Grant), Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), and Quincy Morris (Campbell) are discussing the symptoms of Lucy Westerna (Sadie Frost, who is quite alluring all throughout the movie) with Van Helsing, they don’t really show any real concern. They show excitement, they’re not wooden, but they’re talking about it like it’s just a simple science lesson when they should be as urgent as Mulder and Scully in an episode of The X-Files.

In the meantime, an earlier moment where the three men would be courting Lucy, a scene which is essential as background noise and subtle progression of character relationships but still inconsequential to the main story, they’d all be acting like they were putting their heart on their sleeve… If their heart was made of felt and not actually beating… A lot of these actors are not entirely certain where their characters stand in the film. But they can still at least provide stock grounding. Tom Waits doesn’t need to, but he’s still quite a joy to behold as the insane Renfield in a more 90s darkness tone. Gary Oldman goes as far as he can go to be diabolical and broken at the same time without hamming it up like he sometimes does deliberately with performances in Leon or The Fifth Element. For the horrible horrible inconsistency in his accent, Anthony Hopkins has not yet begun phoning it in like he has been doing in films as of late. He’s got just enough crazy in him along with wise to be a curious little presence in the film.

But how about that crowning jewel of all of the fuck-ups?

People expect me to say Keanu Reeves, but I’m honestly unsurprised by how bad he was. He certainly hurts the film more than anyone else and is definitely not qualified for this role if not his career (I won’t immediately say he is the worst actor around – shit, James Franco exists – but he’s not making it easy). The person I am most disappointed with is Winona Ryder as Elisabeta and Mina. She puts on the same face and hams up her moments with Oldman’s Dracula, and that would be maybe excusable for a few of the supporting characters (though not really, since acting is an essential part of the storytelling of film and the actors do have a responsibility to pull into the world of Dracula)… but Mina is the center of this arc between Jonathan and Dracula and she needs to sell herself being torn apart. Ryder is not up to it, she hits one exact note on her performance and stops there, refusing to go further. It makes it all the more painful to hear this heightened language that she needs to act like it’s coming straight form her heart and jamming it into her throat… It’s not heart-wrenching, it’s cringe-inducing for fuck’s sake Wino!

Like imagine Kristen Stewart reciting Shakespeare. That’s how Winona feels as Mina. And if the movie just about is dented by most of the acting, Winona’s terrible job outright tears the foundation of the romantic storyline and nearly undos all of the hard work the crew did to surround you with this fantasy world and make it seem real and get you involved in how our characters are going. It’s sadly up to the discretion of the audience in the end to decide to hold it together or not.

Me, I choose to hold it together. The world looks too fantastic, too beautiful to let it go down to the toilet. Coppola has come too far for one more hurrah and I kind of was eager to give it to him, so it wasn’t out of my way to put in a little more suspension of disbelief and when I look at the film, rather than listen to it… the fog… the light balls… the cemeteries… the castles… the rose… all around… it pays off to me in the end.

To put it more basically, when the actors are not the main reason to look at the screen, it’s like my wildest dreams come true. When the acting is at the forefront and neither Waits nor Oldman are there to save it too much, I can live without it. But, you have to take the good with the bad and in the end, Bram Stoker’s Dracula proves to be one of the only two adaptations of Dracula yet that actually pleases and entertains as a picture as much as it should. And if Coppola’s career had to descend afterwards (and it did), I can’t think of no better way to go out than through the complete explosion of auteur intuition he once had.

31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 8 – It Sucks – Dracula (1931/prod. Carl Laemmle Jr./USA)

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. It’s still the week Dracula Untold is slated to be released and I figured it may as well be necessary to look at the original monster flick this movie is attached to reboot and see just how high the bar is for Dracula Untold to have to clear it. My low expectations for Dracula Untold aside, it’s barely knee-high…

Wow, was my title a bit too blunt? Did it really frighten you more than anything that happened in Dracula (which isn’t saying much)? Do you expect to just spout out “It insists itself” as my excuse as most of you are perplexed at my attitude?

Let me help you ease into this, then. When I was a child, I was obsessed with the Universal Monsters. I really liked seeing their design and was excited to see anyone of them. I know for a fact that was only because of how classic their status is than any real recognition of standard in the film. Van Helsing eventually hyped this up to 11 and since that led to me finally purchasing Dracula at the first chance I get, there’s another reason to hate on Dracula irregardless of its content.

But I swear my dislike for Dracula is for its content and, while it at least kept me up to finish the extremely short movie (at 75 minutes) the first time I watched it, it got boring and boring and slower and slower to me with each viewing. But again, I was just a high schooler, I couldn’t put my finger on what made me more square than any of the other kids who were not exactly watching Dracula but instead living into The Grudge and The Ring with the new wave of J-horror that was still surging strongly in young American audiences.

Move on to me going to college, I’m finally learning tricks of the trade realizing, holy crap, by 30s standards, Dracula is a really amateur production. Disturbing from one of the heads of Universal studio at the realm, with one of the greatest cinematographers in film history, Karl Freund (’cause y’know German expressionism is never a joke), and a veteran master of direction Tod Browning. But here we are with a very very watered down sense of storytelling people better than this? And it probably would suggest that the movie was made as a quick buck, but it really ain’t.

Carl Laemmle Jr., son of the head of Universal Studios at the time Carl Laemmle Sr., got a greenlight to produce an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s book, but they really found that they weren’t going to be able to capture the epic quality of the book’s inherent battle og good vs. evil because of the Great Depression greatly depressing them out of making a huge picture.

Luckily they found a solution in the form of a stage production of Dracula that was scripted by Hamilton Deane. They simply adapted the book’s story through the stageplay and began using limited sets, save for opening with a prologue that takes place in Transylvania that the stage production neglected to adapt from the book. The fact that the stageplay did not have this moment in the book actually is the first sign that I would have gotten that this script they were translating instead of the book was inadequate for filmmaking. Or really telling any story at all.

Remember when I called Nosferatu the second most diluted watered-down telling of Dracula in history? Say hello to number one! And at least Murnau was just trying to avoid being sued.

You see, Dracula as a story is supposed to be a sweeping grand spanning the globe as Dracula proves to be an immortal evil now terrorizing London requiring a team of individuals to actively pursue him and defeat him. Underneath that epic quality is meant to be a critique on sexuality in conservative London and particularly an honestly pretty misogynist but still interesting filter on the sexual awakening of women in an era where men like Stoker and others insist that it would bring out evil and invite harm to the woman.

Deane’s script did away with all that and just wanted to get from plot point to plot point in the most shortest way possible. And it is not even a quarter as effective. The Transylvania prologue inserted in by screenwriter Garrett Fort actually starts off pretty promising, with moments of exposition that I can’t imagine being translated beyond boring dialogue in the one-set stage production. Then, after some dread setting in by locals of Transylvania, our initial surrogate into the story Renfield (Dwight Frye) meets with Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to discuss the purchase of land – taking place in the single great set of the film a giant staircase of gossamer cobwebs that seems to disappear into interior fog – and the story really begins…

You don’t need me to talk about Lugosi. You know how Lugosi is. He is the only damn reason this movie is near as influential as it is, his Dracula bringing about such suaveness, such alluring exoticism in his manner and restraint, that even if he’s not your favorite Dracula, Lugosi is the one that you will always remember first. He did to that role what Sean Connery did to James Bond. Lugosi was brought in from the stage production (one of two actors to have been brought into the film from production, the other being Edward Van Sloan as Abraham Van Helsing) and that wasn’t a bad thought. I mean, sure, it would probably be considered camp today, but it’s still miles ahead of most of the other actors who either have absolutely no emotive performance in them and prove to sink the movie lower to just being a boring little film.

Anyway, the movie eventually gets to London and two major things happen to the movie: One, the movie begins to just descend into static scenes where nothing actually happens on-screen to progress the plot and everybody who is not Van Sloan, Frye or Lugosi would just drone out lines while the three actors themselves would have to devour the scenery until they were engorged to the point of bursting to avoid the movie making people fall asleep. Every once in a while, there’d be something resembling the sort of fights I’d expect a retirement home to stage for its residents, like Dracula just slapping a mirror down or Van Sloan holding up a cross and Dracula bailing. But really nothing worth a damn happens on account of the other actors and moments even feel unnecessary by losing their purpose – Lucy is just the first kill (and if I can recall Dracula’s only kill) while there’s comic relief in the form of a maid and a mental hospital guard that… well, the less said about them the better. The less said about any actors who aren’t Lugosi, Van Sloan, or Frye, the better. None of them are worth mentioning.

The movie’s shooting style in the generic English manor that only is next to a mental hospital because the dialogue mentions it and that stands in for London rather than any really iconic imagery that would show London’s character is actually just making the terribly acted second half a lot worse. It is uninvolving and static and it feels like I am watching it on a tv screen because there is nothing to bring me into this artificial world. It’s just too empty, too useless. It is the most uninspired work Browning has ever done and we know it’s because Browning was too busy getting hammered, mourning the death of his close friend Lon Chaney, Sr. The poor workmanship of these scenes gets me to thinking that Karl Freund, who we know had to direct some scenes, was in charge entirely of the fantastic Transylvania opening. Also there’s how pretty badly edited the film is (I swear they use the same shots of Van Sloan and Lugosi nodding twice each), and like I said, these scenes are so empty, you could probably mix and match an order, though it’d be better of if you just deleted every frame and started over. This doesn’t cut it, guys.

The other thing that happens is that Frye proves to be a better actor than Lugosi, being a wide-eyed creep who affects my goosebumps significantly more than Lugosi playing off being the Most Interesting Man in the 1930s. Because honestly the only thing threatening about Lugosi is what he says with his Hungarian air, but Frye’s giggles alone in his madness becomes the real shivers-maker. Due to the terrible editing, there’s some moments where we could do without him, but hey, anything to keep my mind off of how lazy the film feels.

Somehow, someway, the movie sees fit to get to the conclusion of the film where Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, and Mina see fit to go ahead and jump Dracula where he sleeps. The movie goes through its final cinematic crimes, particularly refusing to show us the staking we were all waiting for and making these characters look like they’re passing by the same underground arch over and over and over and making expert Van Helsing look lost, before the movie finally figures out that its finished, with myself sitting down thinking “I feel cheated out of 75 minutes. I could have done taxes or laundry or something. Fuck!”

Anyway, I don’t know why they thought this would pass as a movie. It wouldn’t even pass as a stageplay. It’s droll, it’s boring and when it feels like the silent film Nosferatu says more than your SOUND film Dracula, you need to feel like you’ve done something wrong. It’s lucky it actually has the horror legacy you got out of Lugosi’s coattails and being alongside better classics like Bride of FrankensteinFrankensteinThe Mummy and The Wolf Man, because this movie doesn’t deserve it. (which really doesn’t help Lugosi anyway – Lugosi’s career was famously barren past Dracula, with one return to the role and occasional bit parts, save for the end of his life where he was used in Ed Wood’s pictures… yeah, you know which ones.) Your movie is bad and you should feel bad.

Ok, I’m drained now.

31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 5 – Shadowplays

AUTHOR’S NOTE, December 2018: I’m going to be re-reviewing Nosferatu at some point in the future. I have been unfairly harsh to the film based on my previous exposure to it being the many lesser public domain copies running around. It has risen significantly in my esteem and I expect there is much of this review I no longer agree with.

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of horror films selected at random, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. Tonight, we’re going to really take our examinations of sources back in time to the very beginnings of film. In fact, we would have to daresay claim that this is not going to examine the very origins of horror cinema, but in an origin of cinema in general. And it’s all thanks to those crazy Germans…

Cinema is a medium of expression, just like any other. There is very little that separates it from another medium, but one of the major distinctions is how it is a visual medium, making it kin alongside the likes of Fine Art and Theatre, but certainly separating it from, say, music or literature. In fact, as everybody knows – even children who were raised by wolves, even fucking wolves know – cinema was a strictly visual medium until The Jazz Singer shouted out “mammy!” and changed that all around.

But there is that era still of the “strictly visual” and through adversity and limitations, we ended up with some of the most stunning visuals made yet in the history of film. We got the visual aspect pulled to the edge so that a story could be told in the one thousand words of pictures, rather than the one word of… a word…

Ok, let’s get my midnight lack of eloquence back in the bushes for a moment while I finally state my thesis: One of the reasons movies are half as effective as they get to be is because of the German Expressionism movement. Prior to the introduction to sound and color, Germany knew damn well how create an engulfing experience and that was by upping the shadows and heightening the drama, through very artistic stylizations of sets in fine art manner that implies artificiality without becoming fake and having the actors overact with their faces and gestures and movements so much that modern audiences would probably go “Ok, ok, we fucking get it, I’m starting to miss Kristen Stewart’s stone face.” Sure it is melodramatic, but you can’t look at a scene in The Last Laugh and tell me you missed what you were meant to be feeling. Make it as highly symbolic and stylized as to be hardened upon the mind’s of the viewer and burned in their eyes well after the movie finishes. Try to design absurdity in a communicative manner, that was the goal of German Expressionism. Don’t make it real, just make it feel.

And it works. Not only does it work, but it is the basis of emotive filmmaking and began to seep into the manner of expression for most films well after we were accommodated to sound and color – most notably with film noir (but that is a story for another day… or more specifically the next Motorbreath video) – and every filmmaker who tries to communicate an idea or theme or just a really emotional story, from Carl Dreyer to Charles Chaplin to Michel Gondry to David Fincher have some thanks to give to the German film industry in the early 20s for providing the answer to how we can make audiences become moved by pictures deliberately.

This in particular worked out best with the two genres of film that were most defined by the reactions of an audience – Comedy on how the audience could be cajoled to laugh and Horror on how the audience could be frightened to their wits. But this series is not the 31 Nights of April Fools (because that wouldn’t work out, since April Fool’s is like… on the first?), so let’s jump into two of the most definitive silent horror films of the era, the movies people most associate into the idea of how to scare people without making a sound. And we’ll get two because I don’t think I have too much to say in the end for either film that has not already been said by film historians and critics best-spoken and more intelligent than I.

Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (translated from German to “A Symphony of Terror”, but I really just love how it sounds in German that I rarely refer to the translated title) is a movie forever immortalized by Spongebob that kind of deserves to get a chance to stand on its own for this generation. I mean, it did inspire more than the hash-slinging slasher. How about Tobe Hooper’s look for Kurt Barlow in ‘Salem’s Lot? Or the Master – my favorite villain that Buffy the Vampire Slayer got? What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said simply by looking as the ghastly ugly makeup work transforming Max Shreck into a heinous creature of the night? That fucking rat face that would provoke disgust if it weren’t on the same body as those wide fixated eyes suggesting a one-track mind straight for the throat. That tall rigid stance with fingers that extend like the branches of the trees that terrorize Snow White, the tip of the nails so pointed as to suggest your heart is pierced just from looking at them? Don’t you just want to duck your head under the covers like poor Thomas having to sleep right next to that thing? The atmosphere around this figure, this inhuman monstrosity that stuns me to see on the screen, is rich with dread and darkness. For how absolute is the screen evil that is Count Orlock (Shreck) that it seems to parallel the stature of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s masterful make-up work? How powerful is Orlock’s essence on the film?

Quite frankly, so powerful that every time I watch the movie I get bored for the 72 minutes he’s not on-screen. Don’t get me wrong. I said earlier it is an essential I’d recommend to anyone, anywhere. And I’d certainly call it a great movie. I mean, for one, it has some pretty solid compositions for even simple moments as Thomas (Gustav von Wagenheim) leaving Ellen (Greta Schroder) and it’s not a more that really lulls one to sleep, but I’d more waiting for the good stuff with Shreck creeping inch by inch in front of my eyes than anything else the movie has to offer.

For one, F.W. Murnau… let’s get down to brass tacks, Murnau is a fucking genius. He was a master storyteller who brought tears in your eyes within one minute of a masterpiece like Sunrise or Tabu. But, I feel like this is the most amateur and uninspired work I have seen yet in his career. And again, it looks great. Not a single shot seems unnecessary nor does he absolutely lack flair or personality with moments, though it’s very obvious in the end that the night scenes were shot in the day and given a blue tint. But it’s his least expressionist film. The shots are straightforward and more feel like a D.W. Griffith work than a Murnau (and not knocking Griffith’s pictures, again, that man could shot competently). The movie is a brisk 81 minutes, it is not long nor boring by definition. But the movie’s lack of heightened shadow and atmosphere, except in moments where Shreck is either on-screen or providing several dark and threatening scenes like the famous crawl up the stairs or the tragic ending, both makes me kind of watching my clock waiting for Orlock to come back than get into the story too much. It’s just that Shreck outshines everything.

Well, that and the plot is not… very inspired or original. I barely mentioned it, so I’ll sum it up. Thomas Hutter gets a chance to go to Transylvania to sell land to the mysterious Count Orlock. When he gets there, Orlock takes a fancy to Hutter’s wife, Ellen, and leaves Hutter trapped within his walls. It is obvious at this point that Orlock is a vampyre and it is a race against time for Hutter to make it back to save his wife!

Sounds familiar? Yeah, I thought so. It’s because it’s Dracula. It is the first screen adaptation of Dracula and it pretty much is a beat-by-beat account of Bram Stoker’s novel. And, given that it is one of my favorite books and an annual read, I am a stickler for how it is presented, so this uninspired fashion of adapting the movie, causes me to consider Nosferatu the second most sterilized adaptation of the book I have ever seen. And if that shocks you, wait till later this month when you find out what I think IS the most sterilized.

It apparently didn’t amuse Stoker’s estate either, who took immediately to a lawsuit on Murnau and left his studio, Prana, bankrupt. As a result, all copies of Nosferatu were to be destroyed shortly after release and for a long while, it seemed they all were. It is by some miracle that we still have a chance to look at the glory of Nosferatu. Even if I am spoiled by Shreck, there are some wonderful moments coming out of von Wagenheim and Schroder that herald expressionist acting, bringing out the most terror on your face when Orlock approaches you or the joy when you receive a letter from your love, calculating your movements on screen so as to entrap the audience in what you are doing.

It’s certainly again amateur green-behind-the-ears Murnau before he actually got to be Murnau and shelled out his true brilliantly expressionist works like FaustThe Last Laugh and Sunrise, but it’s truly a moment of involved storytelling, if not inspired, and worthy of its place among the firsts in cinema… the first to make a character so scary as to make us pray he doesn’t pop out of the screen.

Now, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari… That’s inspired. It’s a mind-bender of a film. It is to the silent era what The Usual Suspects must have felt to the audience of 1995 (my feelings about The Usual Suspects being overrated and a distractedly entertaining film with one of the stupidest endings of all time notwithstanding). But it’s certainly coming from a place that means something to the filmmakers…

At least meaning something to the writers of the film. Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz knew that they wanted to make a horror film, so they decided that they would touch upon the things about their lives that make them shiver the most. For Mayer, it was all the psychological problems he felt he still suffered as a result of his excruciating service in World War I and the military psychiatrist that terrorized them. For Janowitz, it was his suspicion about a recent incident where he associates a man he saw exiting bushes near a fair and a bit of news the next morning that a woman was found dead in that same spot. For both, it was definitely the affrontive atmosphere of fairs, somewhat imposing in their happiness to extremes. Certainly something that would call for an expressionistic approach.

And an expressionistic approach of course meant something to the producer Erich Pommel, who didn’t have much light to use and was all for a movie made out of shadows. And to designers Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann & Walter Rohrig, who finally got a chance to use their artistic intuitions to create an angular world that would have fit better in a nightmare than any haunted house or “school in your underwear” moment ever dreamt up. And to director Robert Wiene to prove anybody can do “Fritz Lang” and work well with designers who have an eye for lines. In fact, this is a movie that it is very hard to establish authorship for. Everybody on the visual side of things seemed to have a hefty hand in making The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari what it is.

And what it is happens to be the story of a couple Francis and Jane (Friedrich Feher and Lil Dagover, respectively) who visit the local fair to witness a somnambulist named Cesare (The uncanny Conrad Veidt) controlled by the hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Cesare insists that a friend of the couple’s will be dead by dawn and sure enough, Cesare proves to be right. But said death causes Francis’ suspicions and he begins to investigate what truly is the story behind Cesare and Caligari, finding himself sucked into a world of kidnapping, murder and madness.

And madness is just what the doctor prescribed. All this world is is haunting and artistic, the shadows mattering just as much as the strokes of paint of the crooked buildings, and there is nothing like this movie, not at all. It may not at all be an accurate representation of the social or medical results of psychopathy, but man oh man, does it feel like it and in the end, that is what most matters with Expressionism. Making your audience feel like they’re in the madhouse itself, with walls and rooms that just aren’t really there, even in the world of the film.

And the performances all sell themselves. At the forefront is a restrained and measured Veidt showcasing an outstanding expertise in pantomime and facial lock so as to make his very pale made-up face a beacon of terrors to come. Nevermind right behind him being von Twardowski becoming the stereotype of a mad doctor and making right due by it for how the movie calls for that deranged mad look all over, a pretentious bastard who wants to world to recognize and hearken just how brilliant this catastrophe he built is. Feher is an able leading man and Dagover is kind of loopy in her presence, but hell, that’s just exactly what the story needs out of their characters and the two of them are not nearly as uninvolved as von Wagenheim and Schroeder kind of were in Nosferatu.

Don’t ask me about the ending, though. I won’t say a damn word about it except that I love it and it really hammers the theme and main mood of the film right home while establishing it in a more grounded form for the audience to leave thinking about the social effects this movie might have had. That’s it. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’. Johnny Tightlips is what I am.

These movies aren’t the only horror films in the German Expressionism (I like to think of Paul Wegener’s Der Golem and Murnau’s later Faust – the latter of which I prefer to both of these films by far), but they are the cornerstones of the movement and how it affected cinema in the many decades afterward. Becoming the emotion, more than just telling you what the emotion is. Less realism, more feeling. The world can be just as much painted with shadow as it is with light and sometimes it’s just as black and white as you think. You just need to see for yourself…

Gaze into the abyss. And find the darkness gazing back at you.