Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Nosferatu (1922) on the big screen
A couple of nights ago, the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights screened Nosferatu accompanied by the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra of Minnesota. I've seen the movie lots of times with lots of different scores, but never on the big screen and never with a live band.
Rats and People is great. The Heights has an awesome organ, so that got used of course, but there was also a string quartet and a percussionist, with a couple of the strings switching out on guitar and theramin. I'll say that last one again. There was a theramin!
The score they played was original music composed specifically for the movie; full of discordant, staccato strings, spooky organ, weird electronics, and measured percussion that counted time and increased tension. I'll be looking for other opportunities to see these guys accompany films.
The film itself is one of my favorite horror movies. It's easily the creepiest adaptation of Dracula I've ever seen and Max Schreck is unbelievably non-human as Count Orlok. There's been so much written about Nosferatu that I don't have much to add to that discussion, but seeing it on the big screen did change my perspective on it a bit.
There are details that I've missed on smaller screens, like the enormous pipe that Harding (sort of the Dr. Seward of Nosferatu) is smoking before he rescues Ellen (the Mina character) from sleepwalking on a balcony rail. I'd also never noticed that Professor Bulwer (Nosferatu's Van Helsing) cries at the end; probably because I've always been focused on the part of the shot that he's crying about. In addition to all that though, it's fascinating to see the characters' faces so much larger than I'd ever seen them before. It made me pay more attention to their performances and gave me a really good look at their makeup. But that's a double-edged sword.
The only frustrating thing about seeing Nosferatu on the big screen is seeing it with an audience, some of whom have never seen the movie before or, deducing from their reactions, any silent movie before. I'm not judging or suggesting there should be any requirements for attending a screening like this, but people come at these films from different places and that means that they react in different ways. For a lot of the audience I was in, that reaction was laughter.
I experienced this last Halloween at screenings of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. There are moments in those films - especially Bride - that are supposed to be funny, but there was also a lot of laughter at things that aren't intended as humorous, but are dated. Styles of acting, lines of dialogue; stuff like that. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a pretty good post about the reactions of an audience to a recent screening of From Russia With Love. He's a lot angrier about it than I am (and his audience sounds much more rude than mine was), but I can relate to his frustration. It's tough to immerse yourself in a movie you like when people around you are laughing at the monster.
Even more frustrating is that it affected my son's experience with the film. He had a great time, but his opinion of the movie is that it's funny and not at all scary. He's seen silent movies and enjoys them, so he's familiar with that acting style, but the audience's laughter influenced him and got him laughing too. I don't think he would have had that reaction had he been introduced to the movie at home.
But I'm not saying he's wrong. Or even that the rest of my audience is wrong. On the big screen, where you can see every detail of Orlok's face, he can come across as comical. Take this shot for instance.
You can read that a couple of ways. If you're into it, Schreck's expression and movements can seem inhuman and creepy. But if you're not as invested, it can look completely ridiculous, especially when it's blown up to giant size on a movie screen. A benefit of seeing the film on the small screen is that you're not picking up as many details, so there's more mystery, which creates more horror.
So I'm torn. For fans of Nosferatu, seeing it on the big screen is a treat. But if you're hoping to introduce it to someone who's never seen it before, and you want them to think it's scary, find a good print that you can show them at home. Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks are better big screen introductions to silent film.