Fright Club: Nosferatu’s Influence

Happy Halloween! We’re celebrating the holiday and Nosferatu‘s 100th birthday with a look at the movies most influenced by F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece.

5. Dracula (1992)

Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus called this film Francis Ford Coppola’s last must-watch. It does look amazing. Gary Oldman and Tom Waits are great, too. Everybody else…

Coppola’s inspiration for the film was Murnau’s masterpiece, which is especially obvious in the opening act. Not only is Oldman styled as a goofy older character, but his shadow seems to move on its own. A clear homage to what Murnau did to such startling effect.

At the heart of the film is a glorious Oldman, who is particularly memorable as the almost goofily macabre pre-London Dracula. Butthe film feels more Hammer than Murnau, as the lovely Sadie Frost joins a slew of nubile vampire women to keep the film simmering. It’s a sloppy stew, but it is just so tasty.

4. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

In the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade – a celebration for Wellington, New Zealand’s surprisingly numerous undead population – a documentary crew begins following four vampire flatmates.

Viago (co-writer/co-director Taika Waititi) – derided by the local werewolf pack as Count Fagula – acts as our guide. He’s joined by Vladislav (co-writer/co-director Jemaine Clement), who describes his look as “dead but delicious.” There’s also Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) – the newbie at only 187 years old – and Petyr. Styled meticulously and delightfully on the old Nosferatu Count Orlock, Petyr is 8000 years old and does whatever he wants.

The filmmakers know how to mine the absurd just as well as they handle the hum drum minutia. The balance generates easily the best mock doc since Christopher Guest.

3. Salem’s Lot (1979)

Tobe Hooper was such an epic choice to direct this made-for-TV event film in 1979. Stephen King’s beloved novel seems an odd fit for network television, especially in Hooper’s delightfully macabre hands.

Though David Soul may have been the draw in ’79, it’s James Mason’s rich and peculiar delivery of every line that kept the film odd and fascinating.

Hooper’s best choice? Going full Orlock with Mr. Barlow!

2. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Also in 1979, Werner Herzog committed his own take on the Murnau masterpiece to film, and what a glorious endeavor that was! Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre looks hypnotic, and his score feels like a haunting ode to the live accompaniment the original might have boasted.

Klaus Kinski effortlessly revives the ratlike presence of Max Schreck, while Herzog’s script teases out a melancholy the original only hinted at. Isabelle Adjani’s heartbroken central figure is the anchor for the film, but Herzog has a great twist up his sleeve to leave a final scene impression.

1. Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

E. Elias Merhige revisits F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece Nosferatu with smashing results in Shadow of the Vampire. Wickedly funny and just a little catty, ‘Shadow’ entertains with every frame.

This is the fictional tale of the filming of Nosferatu. Egomaniacal artists and vain actors come together to create Murnau’s groundbreaking achievement in nightmarish authenticity. As they make the movie, they discover the obvious: the actor playing Count Orlok, Max Schreck is, in fact, a vampire.

The film is ingenious in the way it’s developed: murder among a pack of paranoid, insecure backstabbers; the mad artistic genius Murnau directing all the while. And it would have been only clever were it not for Willem Dafoe’s perversely brilliant performance as Schreck. There is a goofiness about his Schreck that gives the otherwise deeply horrible character an oddly endearing quality.

No Sleep Til Reddit

The Sleep Experiment

by Tori Hanes

Ah, to relive the youthful, sleepless nights of scrolling mindlessly through Reddit, Creepypasta, hell- even Wikipedia, desperate for a fresh scare. And which tale is more infamous among those fabled threads than the Russian Sleep Experiment? A story so desperate to pass as real to susceptible pre-teens- now, it’s one of the most revered spooks by internet-savvy horror lovers.

Director John Farrelly’s The Sleep Experiment takes vast inspiration from the Russian Sleep Experiment, even down to the use of scientifically enhanced gas to keep the participants awake for 30 consecutive days. Unfortunately, The Sleep Experiment ultimately inherits about as much cinematic charm as its internet forum predecessor. 

The story awkwardly jilts from point A to B, relying on an uneven present-day police interrogation to clumsily place the narrative into the actual storyline. This left-footed rehashing of the experiment steals time away from what both fans of the Creepypasta original and audiences of the film want: disturbing images inside a sleep-deprived human mind.

However, the moments inside the experiment ultimately fall flatly down predictable paths. Some characters lose their minds, others die – none are interesting. It’s impossible to say if the film would have reaped the benefits from investing its time differently, but ultimately, the audience is left starving for more unnerving content.

The performances are, unfortunately, a particularly sore spot. They are largely stilted and awkward. Actors often have difficulty connecting the characters to the overarching – and loose – themes.

The performers sometimes seem to disagree with their dialog – their connection to it is almost nonsensical. A particularly grating example is one character’s long-winded monologue highlighting the joys of psychopathy. At a point, the hyperdramatic rhythm of the words becomes almost comical before sharply turning into confusing irritation.

Ultimately, if you want a similar scare with more room for imagination, do as we did in the good ol’ days. Log onto your Reddit app after your parents have gone to bed and scroll r/horror until your eyes bleed.

Screening Room: Till, Prey for the Devil, Wendell & Wild, Decision to Leave & More

In the Name of the Son

Till

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Get to know Danielle Deadwyler.

Last year she stole scenes in the super-star-studded Western spectacle The Harder They Fall. In 2019, she seared through the screen in Lane and Ruckus Skye’s woefully underseen (See it! Do it!) Devil to Pay. And now she carries the weight of the world with grace as Mamie Till-Mobley in Chinonye Chukwu’s remarkable Till.

Deadwyler is hypnotic, a formidable presence as a woman who endures the unendurable and then alters history.

And Chukwu wastes no time making this history come alive.

For decades, we’ve mostly been shown the same faded, B&W snapshot of Emmett Till. Chukwu, as director and co-writer, bathes us in color and warmth from the opening minutes.

Mamie and her teenage son Emmett aka “Bo” (Jalyn Hall, charming and heartbreaking) share loving and tender moments as he prepares to leave Chicago and visit family in Mississippi. Deadwyler delivers Mamie’s apprehension with tense stoicism, and her eventual grief with gut-wrenching waves of pain.

Chukwu’s overall approach to the period piece offers hits and misses. The vibrant palette brings urgency to the past while fluid camerawork puts you in the parlors, courtrooms, streets and churches, making you part of the history you’re watching. It’s a beautiful film.

At the same time, much of the plotting, score and script fall back on tropes of the period drama. This comes as a particular disappointment given the filmmaker’s fresh and resonant approach to her 2019 drama, Clemency.

And yet, Chukwu mines these familiar beats for organic moments that create bridges to today. Victim blaming, character assassination, trial acquittals and the intimate helplessness of systemic oppression are all integral parts of this story, and ours. Those are ugly truths, but Till never loses its sense of beauty. There’s a remarkable grace to the film, even as it is reminding us that this American history is far from ancient.

There’s no denying Deadwyler, whose aching, breathtaking turn is certain to be remembered this awards season. In her hands, Mamie’s hesitant move to activism is genuine and inspiring, but it is always grounded in loss.

That loss is the soul of Till, a film that paints history with intelligence and anger as it honors one mother’s grief-stricken journey of commitment.

Ain’t That a Shame

Prey for the Devil

by Hope Madden

Shame preys on Catholic girls. It’s guilt that does us in. Just when you think there can be no new or relevant approach to exorcism horror, director Daniel Stamm picks that scab.

Jacqueline Byers is Sister Ann, and she wants to be an exorcist. She attends to patients/inmates/victims as a nurse in a prestigious, centuries-old facility for exorcism in Boston. She also sneaks into classes where no woman is welcome, until Father Quinn (Colin Salmon) notices her unusual connection to some of the afflicted.

Is the church ready for a little feminism?

Wait, the Catholic church?

Prey for the Devil scores points in understated ways. Virginia Madsen’s psychologist dismisses the rite and believes Ann suffers from unresolved trauma. This is treated as something to consider rather than as a narrative device representing good or evil. In the world created by writers Robert Zappia, Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones, science and religion are equally helpful and problematic. It’s often fascinating the way the film respects and undermines simultaneously.

On the whole, exorcism films fall into two categories. One: religion is fake and Catholicism, in particular, is so steeped in misdeeds and debauchery that it may as well kneel to Satan. Two: faith is the only hope. Prey for the Devil suggests a more nuanced approach.

The film’s strengths are its moments of outright feminism because they feel informed rather than flippant. They’re also a bit muted by an acceptance of the “working from within the system” failure.

The other failure is the horror itself, and Stamm should know better. His 2008 gem The Last Exorcism is a standout in the sub-genre (and one of the welcome features where there’s nary a priest on the screen). The horror was inventive, primal and it packed an emotional punch.

A PG13 film, Prey for the Devil suffers from lack of imagination. If you’ve seen one crab walk you’ve seen them all, and Stamm doesn’t deliver a single unique moment of horror in 93 minutes.  

But he knows that nothing takes down a Catholic girl faster than a lifetime of guilt and shame. That metaphor fits a tale of an irredeemable soul better than any I’ve seen, and a little slap of feminism is probably the only thing that can help.

Heart and Soul

Ragged Heart

by Hope Madden

An aching poem to a culture that once was, Evan McNary’s indie Ragged Heart takes root in Athens, Georgia and blossoms with nostalgia, longing, grief and regret.

One-time musician Wyatt Galloway (Eddie Craddock) now rambles the county with Better Day Salvage, taking the old and disused and finding ways to turn them to art. It’s an apt metaphor – though not overwrought, thanks to McNary’s light touch.

Wyatt’s daughter Miranda (Willow Avalon) is the real talent. After a European tour, she’s back in Athens for her birthday and Wyatt’s hoping to reconnect. She leaves him a song, then leaves this earth.

Avalon’s voice and presence echo the melancholy nature of her character, helping the film straddle the space between natural and supernatural. Craddock offers a rugged, world-weary and deeply human presence, although he’s not always charismatic enough to carry the film.

A supporting cast populated by professionals and nonprofessionals, many of them musicians, contribute to the film’s authentic vibe. Joshua Mikel (The Walking Dead) is particularly strong, embodying the conflict between music and money – the battle for a soul.

Ragged Heart has the organic feel of an unscripted, evolving feature, and on the whole that works. It’s not without its rough patches, but the loose narrative structure suits a tale that values art over commerce, messy as that can be.

It loses momentum more than once, mainly because of its fragmented structure, but it also consistently surprises and never loses its way. McNary’s script, co-written with sister Debrah McNary, offers no easy answers for the grief and regret Wyatt faces. Neither do they pretend that remaining true to your art will bring your joy or peace.

But they definitely develop an atmosphere rich with symbolism, heady with art and music, and haunted with regret.

Hep Cats & Cool Kitties

Please Baby Please

by Rachel Willis

A great cast, phenomenal sets, tempestuous music, and spot-on costuming work together to bring life to director/co-writer Amanda Kramer’s film, Please Baby Please.

Together with co-writer Noel David Taylor, Kramer has the elements to craft a successful take on gender identity, sexual politics, and the fluidity of sexuality and gender expression.

But for all these strengths, it doesn’t quite work.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments. Andrea Riseborough, who plays Suze, is a powerhouse on screen. Her effortless portrayal of a stifled 1950s wife is a masterful balance between feminine sexuality and masculine anger. It’s her performance that really blurs the line on stereotypical gender roles.

Harry Melling (Dudley from the Harry Potter series) plays the less overt, meeker of the husband/wife duo, Arthur and Suze. He rails against the stereotype that to be a man he must have control – over his wife and the less tangible things that supposedly make a man a man.

When the couple runs across the gang known as the Young Gents, we start to see the dynamics of gender and sexuality and their precarious, yet significant, role in society.

While the Young Gents earn their place in the film, there are simply too many characters here. Aside from a couple, most don’t have much of a role to play. They appear on screen to represent the oppressive, toxic masculinity that pervades our culture, less character than caricature.

The film’s choreography is another element that doesn’t always work. A scene involving a split screen divides focus, and it’s hard to successfully take in both performances. Do you watch Arthur or Suze? Whose performance in this moment is more important to the film’s overall point?

There is a lot that can be said about our society’s views on gender and sexuality. Much can also be said about what has and hasn’t changed since the 1950s. Please Baby Please adds its messy but stylish take to the conversation.

Found in Translation

Decision to Leave

by George Wolf

“Congrats, it’s a murder case!”

Or maybe more than one. But does detective Jang Hae-joon (Park Hae-il, Memories of Murder and The Host) really want to bring the killer to justice?

Decision to Leave (Heojil kyolshim) unveils a playful, seductive mystery of longing and obsession, masterfully layered and gorgeously framed by acclaimed director and co-writer Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden, Thirst).

Jang is an insomniac, often plagued by memories of unsolved cases and so driven by his work that he keeps a separate residence closer to the precinct, only seeing his wife on weekends.

The distance between them becomes greater once Jang meets the mysterious Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei from Lust, Caution), a smoldering beauty who doesn’t seem very sorry that her husband is dead. His fall from a mountaintop appears to be a suicide, but Jang is compelled to dig deeper.

Song is quick to point out that she is Chinese, and conversing in Korean can leave her confused in translation. But is this just a ploy so Jang will underestimate her, or is she truly the sympathetic victim she claims to be?

Both Wei and Hae-il are wonderful, wrapping themselves around the delicious dialog and intertwining threads of murder and romance in totally engaging fashion. We hang on the hushed potential of the relationship along with each character, and their choices often alternate between compelling, confounding, and darkly funny.

As the time setting shifts ahead to when Song has remarried and yet another twist is introduced, the narrative air becomes even thicker with neo-noir style. Park (Best Director at Cannes this year) and cinematographer Kim Ji-young create a sumptuous visual palette, full of modern innovation and classic homages in equal measure.

It is a truly intoxicating atmosphere that rarely lets up, and a perfect compliment to the yearning that erodes boundaries between detective and suspect. Decision to Leave attack those barriers with tantalizing precision, leaving a breathless trail of crime and passion that is guaranteed to linger.

Holy Terror

Holy Spider

by Matt Weiner

A killer on the loose, inept authorities and simmering political protest come together in the taut, unflinching Holy Spider, the latest from writer/director Ali Abbasi (Border).

After a tense opening sequence, there’s little mystery who the killer is. Saeed, played to cipher-like perfection by Mehdi Bajestani, is a construction worker and family man by day who spends his nights strangling sex workers in the Iranian city of Masshad.

Rahimi (Zar Amiur-Ebrahimi, who took home Best Actress for the role at Cannes) is an out-of-town reporter chasing down the story—often propelling the authorities to even consider the killing spree an urgent matter. As her investigation quickly outpaces that of the police, she becomes determined to crack the case, even if it means becoming the next victim.

If that sounds like a dated setup for a serial killer movie, Abbasi quickly shifts focus. His film sits at the timely intersection of two issues. There’s the handling of the wildly popular true crime genre, undergoing its own interrogation for a focus on lurid storytelling and police narratives at the expense of real people. And then there are the protests and unrest in Iran, sparked by the death of a young woman by the Morality Police.

Holy Spider is based on the real-life Spider killer Saeed Hanaei, who murdered 16 sex workers in the city of Mashhad and was celebrated as doing God’s work by hardline factions after his arrest. And while Holy Spider was made before recent protests, it’s impossible to miss Abbasi’s indictment of how Iranian society at large treats women, especially the most marginalized among them.

It’s not subtle, but it makes for a powerful twist on the usual true crime narrative. Abbasi’s script resists depicting Saeed as a suave or supernatural monster. Saeed is merely an instrument, yes, but it’s not God’s work. It’s the authorities and even Saeed’s own neighbors who show so little care in catching a man who can barely be bothered to cover his tracks. It turns out, choosing victims deemed immoral by society is all he needs to do.

Rahimi’s overt line of questioning wins her no friends in the police department, and Rahimi herself is subject to the same harassment that has allowed Saeed to turn the holy city of Mashhad into a body dump. (There are echoes in Rahimi’s backstory to the actress Ebrahimi’s own past, now an exile living in Paris after an alleged sex tape scandal blew up her career in Iran. It’s an unusual meta-narrative, but there’s nothing gimmicky about Ebrahimi’s fierce, grounded turn.)

If you look up photos of the real Saeed, it’s uncanny how Abbasi is sure to capture his self-assured smile in the courtroom. But more than that, the filmmaker drives home how the real terror lies with Saeed’s certainty that this will all turn out okay in the end. How could it not, for someone just doing what’s expected of him?

Overstayed Welcome

The Guest Room

by Tori Hanes

Moody, eerie, and deftly grounded with stellar performances, The Guest Room by director Stefano Lodovichi delights in uneasy chaos. Following the arrival of a gregariously unusual guest (Guido Caprino), divorced Stella (Camilla Filippi) and her estranged spouse Sandro (Edoardo Pesce) balance the visit with their familial issues. 

The narrative, design, and dialogue take an orbital back seat to the shining star of the three lead actors. Caprino plays his all-encompassingly chilling and charming stranger with incredible poise. Filippi rips sympathy and disgust from audiences’ chests. Meanwhile, Pesce embodies the complexities of estrangement. Lodovichi’s talent at drawing a fully realized performance from his actors within their first moments on screen is delightfully wrenching.

Often, even for the most supposedly refined film viewers amongst us, foreign films can leave a gap in performance recognition for American audiences. The Guest Room does not allow for that gap. The marriage between written word and actors is among the most powerful foreign film experiences a viewer can have.

The film’s primary issue comes from its obvious change of tonal heart. It does well to establish itself quickly and efficiently as a grounded, eerily dark drama. Its initial turn into horror remains grounded. As the plot builds, a need for realistic reasoning behind the inevitable twist reaches a fever pitch. It’s here we take a sharp turn into a more fantastical, almost supernatural element, leaving audiences reeling from genre whiplash. This, unfortunately, muddies the ever-important twist and resolution.

Overall, The Guest Room’s mind-bending performances and uneasy plot make for a whirling 86 minutes. If audiences can swallow the motion sickness set on by genre-defying twists, they will be strapped in for a film they won’t soon forget.