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.
Exciting all MaddWolf Pack episode! Daniel Baldwin, aka The Schlocketeer, and Brandon Thomas join us to talk about a topic we stole from their Twitter conversation: which directors not known for horror made the best horror movies?
Be sure to listen because Daniel and Brandon both bring much knowledge (plus extra movie titles!) to the conversation. But here’s our Top 5:
5. Nosferatu, the Vampire (1979, Werner Herzog)
Sure, it’s another Dracula, but because it’s another Dracula by way of Murnau’s masterpiece Nosferatu, and it’s written and directed by the great Werner Herzog, it’s weird and wonderful.
Herzog uses the imagery Murnau created – in particular, the naked mole rat of a vampire – to turn vampirism into a pestilence to evoke the Black Plague of Europe. Klaus Kinski is that naked mole rat, and he is glorious.
Isabelle Adjani is the pure of heart maiden who is his undoing, but the way Herzog reimagines Jonathan Harker gives the film a cynical twist that feels like a surprise within this dreamlike adaptation. Gorgeous location shooting and an astonishing score help Herzog create a suffocating but captivating atmosphere.
4. The Haunting (1963, Robert Wise)
Coming off the big epics of The Sound of Music and West Side Story, no one would have expected the intimate psychological horror of Robert Wise’s The Haunting.
Shirley Jackson fans have to appreciate the way the film remains true to her vision of horror. Fans of horror have to appreciate Wise’s unbelievable knack for generating terror with sound design and imagination.
Yes, the performances are magnificent – especially Julie Harris, whose bitter Eleanor is picture perfect. But Wise’s mastery of form is what makes this G-rated film a lasting terror.
3. Hour of the Wolf (1968, Ingmar Bergman)
Like all Bergman films, this hypnotic, surreal effort straddles lines of reality and unreality and aches with existential dread. But Bergman and his star, Max von Sydow, cross over into territory of the hallucinatory and grotesque, calling to mind ideas of vampires, insanity and bloodlust as one man confronts repressed desires as he awaits the birth of his child.
As wonderful as von Sydow is as the central figure, a man spiraling toward insanity, it’s the heartbreaking Liv Ullman who owns this movie. Heartbreaking, solid, and the most unusual combination of strength and weakness, her Alma grounds the surreal elements of the movie.
The result is gorgeous, spooky, and so very sad. It’s one of the most underappreciated films of Bergman’s career.
2. The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
You know who you probably shouldn’t hire to look after your hotel? Jack Nicholson.
A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrance’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.
The hypnotic, innocent sound of Danny Torrance’s Big Wheel against the weirdly phallic patterns of the hotel carpet tells so much – about the size of the place, about the monotony of the existence, about hidden perversity. The sound is so lulling that its abrupt ceasing becomes a signal of spookiness afoot.
Nicholson outdoes himself. His early, veiled contempt blossoms into pure homicidal mania, and there’s something so wonderful about watching Nicholson slowly lose his mind. Between writer’s block, isolation, ghosts, alcohol withdrawal, midlife crisis, and “a momentary loss of muscular coordination,” the playfully sadistic creature lurking inside this husband and father emerges.
He’s not the caretaker management expected, but really, was Grady? Like Grady and Lloyd the bartender, Jack Torrance is a fixture here at the Overlook.
1. Silence of the lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
It’s to director Jonathan Demme’s credit that Silence made that leap from lurid exploitation to art. His masterful composition of muted colors and tense but understated score, his visual focus on the characters rather than their actions, and his subtle but powerful use of camera elevate this story above its exploitative trappings. Of course, the performances didn’t hurt.
Hannibal Lecter ranks as one of cinema’s scariest villains, and that accomplishment owes everything to Anthony Hopkins’s performance. It’s his eerie calm, his measured speaking, his superior grin that give Lecter power. Everything about his performance reminds the viewer that this man is smarter than you and he’ll use that for dangerous ends.
Demme makes sure it’s Lecter that gets under our skin in the way he creates a parallel between Lecter and FBI investigator Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). It’s Clarice we’re all meant to identify with, and yet Demme suggests that she and Lecter share some similarities, which means that maybe we share some, too.
How is it even possible that we’ve recorded 109 Fright Club podcasts and we have not covered German horror yet?! It’s high time we remedy that situation, and we do so with the help of Fright Clubber #1, John Dean.
German has an incredible history in this genre, from some of the earliest and most memorable horror films through the contemporary indie gems that will become the next generation of classics. We talk through the five best – and a bunch of others you should really see.
5. Rammbock: Berlin Undead (2010)
Why does this film work?
Michael (Michael Fruith) arrives in Berlin to visit his recently-ex girlfriend. She’s not home. While he waits in her apartment, Berlin falls prey to the zombipocalypse.
It’s actually the rage virus, and it’s how well Rammbock plays like the Berlin equivalent of 28 Days Later or Quarantine that helps it excel.
Michael finds himself trapped inside his ex’s apartment building, scheming survival tricks with the plumber hiding out with him. The team work, strategy, human kindness and pathos all combine with really solid acting and more than a few well-choreographed action bits to help this film more than transcend familiar tropes.
You love these guys. You believe in them, and the idea that they won’t make it through this is dreadful. Director/co-writer Marvin Kren, blessed with a stellar cast, works your sympathies and your nerves.
4. Der Samurai (2014)
Writer/director Till Kleinert’s atmospheric Der Samurai blends Grimm Brother ideas with Samurai legend to tell a story that borders on the familiar but manages always to surprise.
Jakob, an unintimidating police officer in a remote German berg, has been charged with eliminating the wolf that’s frightening villagers. Moved by compassion or longing, Jakob can’t quite make himself accomplish his task – a fact that villagers and his commanding officer find predictably soft. But a chance encounter with a wild-eyed stranger wearing a dress and carrying a samurai sword clarifies that the wolf is probably not the villagers’ – or Jakob’s – biggest problem.
Pit Bukowski cuts a peculiar but creepy figure as the Samurai – kind of a cross between Iggy Pop and Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs’s Buffalo Bill). His raw sexuality offers the perfect counterpoint to the repressed Jakob (Michel Diercks).
Kleinert’s sneaky camera builds tension in every scene, and the film’s magnificent sound design echoes with Jakob’s isolation as well as that of the village itself. And though much of the imagery is connected in a way to familiar fairy tales or horror movies, the understated approach gives it all a naturalism that is unsettling.
It’s a beautiful film about embracing or forever suppressing your inner monster, but this is no ordinary Jekyll and Hyde retread. Kleinert’s vision is steeped in sexuality and sexual identity, giving it a fascinating relevance often missing in this style of horror film.
3. Goodnight Mommy (2014)
There is something eerily beautiful about Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s rural Austrian horror Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh).
During one languid summer, twin brothers Lukas and Elias await their mother’s return from the hospital. They spend their time bouncing on a trampoline, floating in a pond, or exploring the fields and woods around the house. But when their mom comes home, bandaged from the cosmetic surgery she underwent, the brothers fear more has changed than just her face.
Franz and Fiala owe a great debt to an older American film, but to name it would be to give far too much away, and the less you know about Goodnight Mommy, the better.
Inside this elegantly filmed environment, where sun dappled fields lead to leafy forests, the filmmakers mine a kind of primal childhood fear. There’s a subtle lack of compassion that works the nerves beautifully, because it’s hard to feel too badly for the boys or for their mother. You don’t wish harm on any of them, but at the same time, their flaws make all three a bit terrifying.
The filmmakers’ graceful storytelling leads you down one path before utterly upending everything you think you know. They never spoon feed you information, depending instead on your astute observation – a refreshing approach in this genre.
Performances by young brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz compel interest, while Susanne Wuest’s cagey turn as the boys’ mother propels the mystery. It’s a hypnotic, bucolic adventure as visually arresting as it is utterly creepy.
The film is going to go where you don’t expect it to go, even if you expect you’ve uncovered its secrets.
2. Funny Games (1997)
A family pulls into their vacation lake home, and are quickly bothered by two young men in white gloves. Things, to put it mildly, deteriorate.
Writer/director Michael Haneke begins this nerve wracking exercise by treading tensions created through etiquette, toying with subtle social mores and yet building dread so deftly, so authentically, that you begin to clench your teeth long before the first act of true violence.
His teen thugs’ calm, bemused sadism leaves you both indignant and terrified as they put the family through a series of horrifying games. And several times, they (and Haneke) remind us that we are participating in this ugliness, too, as we’ve tuned in to see the family suffer. Sure, we root for the innocent to prevail, but we came into this with the specific intention of seeing harm come to them. So, the villains rather insist that we play, too.
Once Haneke’s establishes that he’ll break the 4th wall, the director chooses – in a particularly famous scene that will likely determine your overall view of the film – to play games with us as well.
But it is the villains who sell the premise. With actors Arno Frisch and Frank Giering, the bored sadism that wafts from these kids is seriously unsettling, as, in turn, is the film.
1. Nosferatu (1922)
Best vampire ever. Not the seductive, European aristocrat, cloaked and mysterious, oh no. With Count Orlock, filmmaker F. W. Murnau explores something more repellent, casting an actor who resembles an albino naked mole rat.
Given that Murnau equates the film’s vampire-related deaths with the plague, this vermin-like image fits well. But more than that, thanks to a peculiarly perfect performance by Max Schreck, Murnau mines the carnality of the vampire myth for revulsion and fear rather than eroticism.
Famously, the film was meant to be the first Dracula movie, but Murnau could not work out an agreement with Bram Stoker’s estate (who later sued, and all copies of the film were nearly lost). He changed a handful of things in an attempt to avoid the eventual lawsuit and filmed anyway. Names are changed (Harker is now Hutter, Dracula is Orlock, etc.), and details are altered, but the story remains largely – well, criminally – the same.
The genius move is the spindly, bald hunchback for a vampire – why, he’s almost a European Monty Burns! Murnau’s mastery behind the camera – particularly his ability to capture the vampire’s shadow – made the film a breathtaking horror show at the time. But don’t discount this as dusty history.
Sure, the silent film style of acting appears nothing short of quaint today, and the Dracula tale has been told too, too often at this point. But Max Schreck is a freak, and in his bony, clawlike hands, Count Orlock remains the greatest vampire ever undone by a sinless maiden.
The Seventies is when horror really took off. Blockbuster masterpieces like Alien and Jaws affected countless viewers and at least as many future filmmakers. Maverick young directors like Brian De Palma, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Dario Argento developed into the cinematic voices of a generation. Major studio efforts with A-list casts like The Omen kept the genre on the front burner for all movie goers, and Blaxploitation reached into the genre with the Blacula series.
We had to leave a lot off this list. In what may be the most crowded field of any decade, here we boil down the five best horror films (strictly horror – sorry Jaws & Alien!) of the 1970s.
5. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
In 1922, F.W. Murnau directed maybe the best vampire film we’ll ever see: Nosferatu. In 1979, Werner Herzog lovingly remade it. Both films are obviously based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, but where Stoker saw romance, these German filmmakers saw pestilence.
The effortlessly weird Klaus Kinski may play Dracula, but his look is 100% Orlock from Murnau’s film. Pasty and bald with hollowed eyes, pointy ears and rat teeth, this vampire relates far more to the vermin spreading the Black Plague across Europe than to the sultry beast luring women and men to an erotic end.
Herzog’s images are dreamy and wonderful, and the twists he gives the fairly tired storyline are genius. Isabel Adjani’s Lucy gets to be the hero, and the alteration to her beloved Jonathan Harker’s character is the work of dark genius.
4. Halloween (1978)
No film is more responsible for the explosion of teen slashers than John Carpenter’s babysitter butchering classic.
Sure, you’ve seen it, but from the creepy opening piano notes to the disappearing body ending, this low budget surprise changed everything. Carpenter impeccably develops anxiety, breaking tradition by planting it right in a wholesome Midwestern neighborhood. You don’t have to go camping or take a road trip or do anything at all – the boogeyman is right there at home.
Michael Myers – that hulking, unstoppable, blank menace – is terrifying. Pair that with the down-to-earth charm of lead Jamie Lee Curtis, who brought a little class and talent to the genre, and add the bellowing melodrama of horror veteran Donald Pleasance, and you’ve hit all the important notes. Just add John Carpenter’s spare score to ratchet up the terror. Nice.
3. Carrie (1976)
The seminal film about teen angst and high school carnage has to be Brian De Palma’s 1976 landmark adaptation of King’s first full length novel, the tale of an unpopular teenager who marks the arrival of her period by suddenly embracing her psychic powers.
Sissy Spacek is the perfect balance of freckle-faced vulnerability and awed vengeance, but she may be overshadowed by Piper Laurie’s glorious evil zeal as her religious nutjob mother. (Both were Oscar nominated.) We feel proud and cautiously optimistic when Carrie finally stands up to her mother, but Senior Prom, or “Love Among the Stars,” doesn’t go as well as it might have for poor Carrie White or her classmates. One ugly trick involving a bucket of cow’s blood, and Carrie’s psycho switch is flipped. Spacek’s blood drenched Gloria Swanson on the stage conducting the carnage is perfectly over-the-top. And after all the mean kids get their comeuppance, Carrie returns home to the real horror show.
De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen wisely streamline King’s meandering finale. From the prom sequence onward, De Palma commits to the genre, giving us teen carnage followed by the profoundly upsetting family horror, finished with one of cinema’s best “gotcha” moments.
The prom scene inspired a Halloween costume for us a couple years ago – we won best costume and a free round!
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Not everyone considers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Those people are wrong. Perhaps even stupid. It is classic because Hooper masterfully enlisted a low rent verite for this bizarre story to do something utterly new. The camera work, so home-movie like, worked with the “based on a true story” tag line like nothing before it, and the result seriously disturbed the folks of 1974. It has been ripped off and copied dozens of times since its release, but in the context of its time, it was so absolutely original it was terrifying.
Hooper sidestepped all the horror gimmicks audiences had grown accustomed to – a spooky score that let you know when to grow tense, shadowy interiors that predicted oncoming scares – and instead shot guerilla-style in broad daylight, outdoors, with no score at all. You just couldn’t predict what was coming.
Poor, doomed, unlikeable Franklin Hardesty, his pretty sister Sally, and a few other friends head out to Grampa Hardesty’s final resting place after hearing the news of some Texas cemeteries being grave robbed. They just want to make sure Grampy’s still resting in peace – an adventure which eventually leads to most of them making a second trip to a cemetery. Well, what’s left of them.
We got to meet Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface) and Marilyn Burns (Sally) a couple years ago. We were pretty geeked!
1. The Exorcist (1973)
Slow moving, richly textured, gorgeously and thoughtfully framed, The Exorcist follows a very black and white, good versus evil conflict: Father Merrin V Satan for the soul of an innocent child. But thanks to an intricate and nuanced screenplay adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, the film boasts any number of flawed characters struggling to find faith and to do what’s right in this situation. And thanks to Friedkin’s immaculate filming, we are entranced by early wide shots of a golden Middle East, then brought in a little closer to watch people running here and there on the campus at Georgetown or on the streets of NYC.
Then we pull in a bit closer: interiors of Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) place on location, the hospital where Fr. Karras’s mother is surrounded by loons, the labs and conference rooms where an impotent medical community fails to cure poor Regan (Linda Blair).
Then closer, in the bedroom, where you can see Regan’s breath in the chilly air, examine the flesh rotting off her young face. Here, in the intimacy, there’s no escaping that voice, toying with everyone with such vulgarity.
The voice belongs to Mercedes McCambridge, and she may have been the casting director’s greatest triumph. Of course, Jason Miller as poor, wounded Fr. Damien Karras could not have been better. Indeed, he, Burstyn and young Linda Blair were all nominated for Oscars.
So was Friedkin, the director who balanced every scene to expose its divinity and warts, and to quietly build tension. When he was good and ready, he let that tension burst into explosions of terrifying mayhem that became a blueprint for dozens of films throughout the Seventies and marked a lasting icon for the genre.
So that’s it! We hope you agree, but let us know if you don’t, and be sure to listen to the entire podcast on Fright Club!