The classic vampire flick "Nosferatu" screens… (Handout photo )
Forget the reigning image of Count Dracula as upscale lounge lizard. Cast off the dominant picture of homegrown vampires as sex-crazed or love-struck, mixed-up kids.
F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922) uses a fanged, hypnotic demon to throw a spell that follows you home from the theater and stays with you for days — and nights — on end. It's the evil-fairy godfather of all great horror movies. Seeing it on the AFI Silver's big screen at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday, with a live score by D.C.'s Silent Orchestra, is an experience that connoisseurs of the creepy should not pass up. They will savor every Transylvanian minute — and every minute set in the fictional town of Wisbourg, Germany, too. (If you can't make it, Kino has released the film in a splendid two-disc DVD edition.)
This stripped-down adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" features Max Schreck's incomparably terrifying version of Count Dracula, here called "Count Orlok." Schreck wears his craggy bald skull like a crown. His skin is chalky white — after all, it hasn't tanned in centuries. His eyes are as darkly ringed as a comic-book bull terrier's (think Spuds McKenzie with two blackened orbs). His elongated fingers, which grow longer as the film goes on, cast giant spidery shadows. His ears are as sharp and pointy as his nails and teeth.
He dresses in long, clinging jackets and a hat that's like a parody of a biretta. At first glance, he could be a ghoulish priest. The miracle of Schreck's performance is that, despite his bizarre get-up, he projects a presence more potent than any Hollywoodian with a shirt unbuttoned to the navel. This Dracula is proud of his separateness, ruthless in his quest to find new veins of survival. He doesn't hide his hunger when he sees a human wound — he goes in for the suck.
"Nosferatu" doesn't merely boast a nonpareil vampire. It creates a world as haunting as it is haunted. From the beginning, director Murnau intermingles sensuality and morbidity. He sets the tone when Wisbourg real estate agent Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) picks flowers for his wife, Ellen (Greta Schroder). She responds to the bouquet as a bunch of gorgeous dead things. "Such beautiful flowers," she purrs. "Why did you kill them?"
The director went on location to film Hutter's journey from Wisbourg to Transylvania to sell Orlok an abandoned property near his own house. In Slovakia, Murnau found (in film critic Bela Balasz's memorable phrase) "scenes of nature in which a cold wind from another world blows." This film suggests that a heightened sensitivity to nature, like Ellen's, can be as unnatural as Orlok's rampaging evil. After all, the film points out, nature contains creatures as deceptive and deadly as the Venus flytrap. It makes poetic sense that Orlok's attraction to Ellen is what makes him vulnerable.
Murnau manipulated his negative and his film speeds for eerie special effects. He boldly cut between distant characters to suggest their psychic connections. But his simplest moments may be his best. His command of his art is so total that when the death ship carrying Orlok sails into Wisbourg, it glides into port with the sureness of a wolf that's found a long-lost jugular.
The only other traditional vampire film to rival the power of suggestion of "Nosferatu" is Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1931 "Vampyr." It, too, conjures an atmosphere that fills an audience's pores like vapors.
According to Phil Hardy's "The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies," director Carl Theodor Dreyer and his cinematographer, Rudolph Mate, hit on their clammy visual style by chance. When they looked at their oddly hazy rushes, they saw that "a false light in the lens" had grayed their images, creating an elusive, unsettling quality that fit their nightmarish action. The story sounds apocryphal. After all, accidents on movie sets are a prime source of movie lore. But "Vampyr" is frightening in such an insidious way that it's easy to believe that fate lent the filmmakers a hand.
The movie hews to the traditional demonology. The hero is a stranger in a strange land, and he's sensitive, even vulnerable, to paranormal forces. He checks into a haunted inn at a riverside village and soon realizes that the daughter of the local lord is cursed by the bite of the undead.
Gradually, he discovers that a female vampire buried in the cemetery threatens the hamlet. Her forces include a doctor who specializes in bloodletting, a one-legged soldier with an independent shadow and, indeed, a veritable legion of shadow people.
Dreyer and Mate's visual mastery is a matter not just of abnormal lighting but also of off-angle compositions, close-ups freighted with meaning and hypnotic camera movements. Their visionary fever peaks with a shot of a man smothered in grain. "Vampyr" is mesmerizingly claustrophobic. When it's over, you feel spared.
If you go
"Nosferatu" screens 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday at the AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring. Call 301-495-6720 or go to afi.com/silver.