Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

Nosferatu at 100, Part III: Release, reception, legacy

Though Nosferatu was a German film, it was first screened in The Hague, The Netherlands on 16 February 1922, at the Flora and Olympia cinemas. The film had its grand German première on 4 March 1922 by the Berlin Zoological Garden’s Marmorsaal (Marble Hall). This was part of Das Fest des Nosferatua party where guests were asked to come in Biedermeier (1815–48) costumes.

Prior to the screening, a prologue written by Kurt Alexander and based on Goethe’s Faust was read, accompanied by Otto Kembach’s band playing Hans Erdmann’s score. Erdmann himself conducted.

Nosferatu was followed by Die Serenade, a dance play also written by Erdmann and performed by a dancer from the Berlin State Opera. Then there was a costume ball, whose attendees included many prominent filmmakers of the era, such as Ernst Lubitsch, Richard Oswald, Heinz Schall, Hanns Kräly, and Johannes Riemann.

The theatrical release was on 15 March 1922 at the Primus Palace.

Several days after Nosferatu‘s première, another of director F.W. Murnau’s films, The Burning Soil, was released. This created lots of extra buzz for both Nosferatu and Murnau, and the reviews were overwhelming positive. However, some critics didn’t think it felt enough like a horror film on account of the bright lighting, clarity of images, and technical perfection.

Despite mostly garnering praise, Nosferatu wasn’t a financial success, and UFA, Germany’s primary film production company, refused to screen it at their major theatres. Nosferatu could only be shown at small indie theatres. Prana-Film, the company who produced it, had also already blown through the several million marks given them as start-up capital from Silesian financiers with little experience in the film business. They spent too much on advertising and other aspects of the film.

Bankruptcy proceedings opened in August 1922, and the film was seized. Prana’s troubles increased when Bram Stoker’s widow Florence sued them for copyright infringement. In July 1925, a Berlin court ordered all copies of the film and anything else related to it be destroyed.

Mrs. Stoker also prevented London’s Film Society from screening Nosferatu with a copy already in England, but they managed to hide it. Sadly, when they tried again to screen it four years later, Mrs. Stoker succeeded in having the copy destroyed. Hypocritically, she was already in film right negotiations for Dracula with Universal.

Luckily, many copies survived undetected abroad, sometimes with different intertitles, character names, and editing. In the late 1920s, a French version with only 31 intertitles (versus the original 115) became wildly popular among André Breton and his Surrealist friends. When this version came to the U.S. and had the intertitles translated, the characters were renamed after Stoker’s characters, and Wisborg was changed to Bremen.

A version released on 16 May 1930 in Vienna was set to music by the recently-created German Film Production company and given the title The Twelfth Hour—A Night of Horrors. It had a happy ending, and the characters got entirely new names. It also contained many scenes filmed by Murnau and cameraman Günther Krampf but never released.

Irony of ironies, this edit was unauthorized itself, and Murnau’s name didn’t appear in the credits!

Since Prana never applied for copyright in the U.S., Nosferatu entered the public domain by default. It came back into the public eye when it was featured (in a quite shortened cut) on the 1960s show Silents Please! Before long, it was widely distributed on home video under many different names and versions.

Nosferatu officially entered worldwide public domain in 2019.

The first restoration effort began in 1981, and many others have followed in the ensuing decades. One such restoration was based on a first-generation nitrate copy of Nosferatu which was unearthed by Murnau scholar Luciano Berriatúa in the Cinémathèque Française and has been shown at several film festivals. Since each version uses different music, tinting, presentation speed, contrast, etc., they’re all separately copyrighted.

In 1979, director Werner Herzog did a remake, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night), called Nosferatu the Vampyre in English. Klaus Kinski stars as Count Dracula.

Two other planned remakes were respectively announced as being in development in 2014 and 2015, respectively, but there’s no news as to their current status.

Countless songs, music videos, films, video games, TV shows, and works of literature over the last 100 years have referenced or been influenced by Nosferatu, and an operatic version was composed by Alva Henderson and Dan Gioia in 2004 and released in 2005.

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

Nosferatu at 100, Part I: General overview

Note: This text is directly lifted almost entirely from my 2017 post I did about Nosferatu on its 95th anniversary. My intention always was to write a much more in-depth series for its 100th anniversary.

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors), one of director F.W. Murnau’s most famous films, and one of the few silents most people outside the fan community know exists, had its grand première 4 March 1922 by the Berlin Zoological Garden’s Marmorsaal (Marble Hall). Because Bram Stoker’s heirs sued over this unauthorized Dracula adaptation, and a court ruled all prints be destroyed, Nosferatu almost became one of the far too many lost films.

Thankfully, many copies outside of Germany escaped the notice of Bram Stoker’s enraged widow Florence, and today the film is widely considered a classic of horror and German Expressionism.

In 1838 Wisborg (a fictional city), Thomas Hutter is sent to Transylvania by his employer, real estate agent Knock, to visit Count Orlok. Rumours about Knock circulate, but one thing known for sure is that he pays his employees well.

Orlok wants to buy a house in Wisborg, and Knock tempts Hutter with extra money. He says Hutter may have to go to a bit of trouble, with some sweat and blood.

Knock suggests Hutter offer Orlok the empty house across from his, and bids him a good trip to the land of the phantoms.

Hutter’s wife Ellen (whose opening scenes call to mind a D.W. Griffith ingénue made to act like an overgrown little girl) is very worried about him, but he assures her he’ll be fine.

Hutter stops by an inn in the Carpathians, and everyone responds with horror when he announces he’s on his way to Count Orlok. The owner warns him not to go any further tonight, saying the werewolf is roaming the forests.

That night, Hutter begins reading a book about Vampyres.

Hutter sets out on his last leg in the morning, and urges his riders to hurry so they get there before dark. They stop before the destination, claiming a bad feeling.

As soon as Hutter crosses the bridge, he’s seized by eerie visions. The creepiness increases when an eerie-looking coachman gives him a lightning-speed ride the rest of the way.

Orlok (Max Schreck, whose surname means “terror”) is displeased to have been kept waiting so long, till nearly midnight, when the servants are asleep.

Orlok’s house gives Hutter the creeps, and he’s further creeped out by Orlok’s weird reaction to his bloody finger. Hutter tries to leave, but Orlok begs him to stay until day, when he sleeps, completely dead to the world.

In the morning, Hutter writes a letter to Ellen to reassure her he’s alright. By evening, Hutter shows Orlok Ellen’s picture, and Orlok remarks on her lovely neck. Orlok also says he’s buying the deserted house across from Hutter’s.

Hutter reads more of his Vampyre book, which makes him even more eager to get out of there. His terror goes through the roof when Orlok stalks towards him.

Meanwhile, Ellen is sleepwalking on the balcony. Her friend Harding catches her before she can fall off, and calls for a doctor. Ellen has a terrifying vision of her husband in danger.

The doctor says it’s just a case of mild blood congestion.

At dawn, Hutter finds Orlok asleep in a coffin. Shortly afterwards, he sees Orlok moving coffins into the courtyard, piling them on a carriage, getting into the one on top, and driving away.

Hutter collapses and is brought to hospital.

Orlok boards the schooner Empusa with coffins full of dirt. Meanwhile, Knock goes crazy under his spell.

While Hutter hurries home, Empusa also draws ever closer to Wisborg, bringing with it the Plague.

Will Orlok’s evil spell be broken before all of Wisborg is destroyed?

Posted in 1940s, holidays, Movies

A passionate panther prowls within

Cat People, released 5 December 1942, was director Val Lewton’s very first film as head of RKO’s horror unit. In this role, he earned $250 a week ($4,552.27 in 2022) and had to keep each film under 75 minutes and a $150,000 budget ($2,731,361.96 in 2022). His supervisors also were tasked with naming the films.

Charles Koerner, executive VP of production at RKO, thought a horror film about cats would stand out from overused creatures like Vampyres, werewolves, and monsters. In preparation for writing the script, screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen researched feline-themed literature like Ambrose Bierce’s 1897 short story “The Eyes of the Panther” and Margaret Irwin’s 1951 story “Monsieur Seeks a Wife.”

Ultimately, Lewton decided to base Cat People (whose title he disliked) on Algernon Blackwood’s 1906 story “Ancient Sorceries,” and the script was co-written by Bodeen, Lewton, director Jacques Tourneur, and film editor Mark Robson.

High-ranking RKO executives didn’t like what they saw when the film was privately screened prior to release, and test screenings in October 1942 at the RKO Hill Street Theatre started out badly as well. Since there was a Disney cartoon about a kitten before the main feature, the audience began meowing, and they continued making cat noises when the title screen appeared.

As the film progressed, the audience quit making cat sounds and became engrossed in the story.

Cat People had its grand première on 5 December 1942 at NYC’s Rialto Theatre, and went into general release in the entire city the next day. It went into wider release on Christmas, and had its Los Angelos première on 14 January 1943.

Despite mixed critical reviews, the film was a huge success, earning $4 million in the U.S. and another $4 million abroad. In 1952, RKO reissued it, and Universal did a remake in 1982.

The 1944 sequel, Curse of the Cat People, has one of the most misleading titles in film history. It’s not a horror film at all, and has almost no relationship to Cat People beyond the same cast.

Serbian-born fashion illustrator Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is drawing a panther at the Central Park Zoo (and wasting a lot of pages in her sketchbook by ripping out her drawings almost as soon as she starts!) when she meets marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). Oliver walks her home to her brownstone apartment, and she invites him up for tea, the first person she’s ever had over since she immigrated.

Oliver notices a statuette of someone on horseback, holding up a sword on which a cat is impaled. Irena explains it’s King John (Jovan Nenad) of Serbia, who drove out the Mameluks, freed the enslaved Serbs, and restored Christianity. King John was so disgusted by how supposedly superstitious and primitive the people in Irena’s village had become, he had them all killed. All, that is, except “the wisest and the most wicked,” who escaped to the mountains and became cat people. This legend has haunted her village ever since.

Oliver buys a kitten for Irena, and their meeting doesn’t exactly go very well. The kitten immediately hisses and arches it back, and Irena says cats just don’t seem to like her. When she and Oliver go to the pet store to exchange the kitten for a canary, all the animals go wild. They’re so loud, the woman who owns the store can’t hear a word Oliver is saying. Calm is restored as soon as Irena steps outside, and she insists on staying outside while Oliver picks out the bird for her.

Some time later, Oliver says it’s kind of funny they’ve never kissed despite being in love, and Irena says she’s lived in dread of this moment. She never wanted to love Oliver, and has deliberately lived alone and stayed away from people on account of the superstitions from her village. Oliver tries to reassure her these are just fairytales and that she wouldn’t be marrying him if she didn’t love him.

The wedding reception is held at a Serbian restaurant recommended by Oliver’s co-worker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). Irena is freaked out when a woman who looks like a cat calls her “My sister” in Serbian.

Oliver and Irena spend their wedding night in separate rooms, and the marriage remains unconsummated. (Odd how Oliver is so patient and understanding about being denied sex or even kissing from his wife, yet beats his little girl in the sequel for daring to have an active imagination and not having any close friends.)

Oliver decides to send Irena to a shrink after Irena says the canary died of fright and she felt compelled to throw the corpse into the panther’s cage at the zoo. Under hypnosis, Irena tells Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) more details about the cat people legend. If a woman is aroused by jealousy, anger, or “corrupt passion,” she can transmogrify into a great cat like a panther, and if she falls in love and is kissed or embraced by a lover, “she would be driven by her own evil to kill him.”

Dr. Judd believes Irena’s fears and superstitions stem from her father’s death before she was born and how the village children teased her and her mother on account of that.

Irena is furious to learn Oliver told Alice about their problems and that Alice herself recommended Dr. Judd, a personal friend of hers. She refuses to go back to Dr. Judd, though she later bumps into him by the panther’s cage at the zoo.

Oliver continues confiding in Alice about his problems at home, and Alice admits she loves him.

One night, Irena phones Alice at work and doesn’t answer, then spies on Oliver and Alice at a diner and trails Alice as she walks to a bus in the dark. After Irena comes home, she dreams about panthers and King John speaking in Dr. Judd’s voice.

Irena’s jealousy increases when Oliver and Alice ignore her at a museum until they go off on their own. That night, Irena follows Alice to the swimming pool at her apartment, and when Alice emerges, she finds her robe torn to ribbons.

Will Irena ever be able to control the passionate panther prowling within?

Posted in 1940s, holidays, Movies

You can’t keep a good monster down!

The Ghost of Frankenstein, released 13 March 1942, was the fourth film in Universal’s very popular Frankenstein’s Monster franchise. Though Son of Frankenstein (1939) was the last A-quality film in the series, and Universal had by this time moved away from serious horror films and towards mere monster movies, Ghost of Frankenstein is still quite good.

Everyone expected Boris Karloff would once again play the Monster, but his schedule with the very popular play Arsenic and Old Lace precluded him from reprising his signature character. A day after the film was announced, Lon Chaney, Jr. was cast in the role, and producer George Waggner was ordered to use Karloff’s exact same makeup so as to retain continuity and not lose fans of the franchise.

Lon, Jr. missed a few days of filming when he had a severe allergic reaction to the makeup.

There’s trouble in the village of Frankenstein, as angry, disgruntled villagers insist all their current problems are caused by the curse of Frankenstein. The Mayor urges them to be rational, and reminds them the Monster perished in a sulphur pit and his master Ygor is probably dead as well, but mob justice prevails, and Dr. Frankenstein’s castle is destroyed.

The explosions reveal the Monster was preserved intact in hardened sulphur, which fills the also very much alive Ygor (Béla Lugosi) with delight. As they’re fleeing the besieged castle, the Monster is struck by lightning. Ygor decides they should go to Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein, the older son of Dr. Henry Frankenstein, in Visaria.

Trouble begins in Visaria almost immediately, as villagers misinterpret the childlike Monster’s intentions towards a little girl, Cloestine, whom he’s trying to help. His appearance also terrifies them, and he lashes out the only way he knows how, by killing two people. Though the girl’s father is prevailed upon to not shoot him, and the Monster peacefully returns the girl after fetching her ball on a roof, cops and other people in the mob set upon him.

The Monster is taken to jail as a madman, and the town prosecutor alerts Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke) to the Monster’s presence. Ludwig agrees to examine this strange, violent giant.

No sooner is Ludwig alone than Ygor steals in to see him, begging him to heal the Monster both body and brain. This is a most disagreeable proposition, but Ygor forces his hand by threatening to publicly reveal his true ancestry.

The Monster is chained up and questioned by a judge as the mob congregates, but he refuses to speak. Even Cloestine’s sweet, patient, innocent questions are met with silence.

When Ludwig arrives, he denies recognition of his father’s creation in horror, and the Monster breaks his chains. Ygor flees with the Monster in the back of a wagon, hidden inside a crate.

Ludwig’s daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers) discovers her grandfather’s old journals and reads about the Monster’s creation (with scenes from the first film). She’s terrified by strange shadows outside the window, which she’s positive belong to the Monster, but Ludwig insists her mind was tricked by the storm.

The Monster and Ygor indeed have gained access to the Frankenstein residence, and the Monster kills one of Ludwig’s assistants. The Monster also grabs Elsa, but Ludwig manages to knock him out with sulphuric gas.

Ludwig is attempting to examine the unconscious Monster, belted down to a table in his lab, when the Monster starts sitting up and breaks one of the belts. Ludwig immediately tranquilizes him.

Ludwig’s begs his surviving assistant, Dr. Theodore Bohmer (Lionel Atwill), to help him with dismantling the Monster in exactly the way he was created, piece by piece, but Dr. Bohmer refuses and says that would be murder. Ludwig then reads his father’s old journals and is visited by Henry’s ghost, who tells him the Monster was created with a criminal brain. Henry implores his son to put another brain into the Monster, which will remove his evil inclination and transform him into a force for good.

Ludwig tells Ygor and Dr. Bohmer he’s going to use the brain of the killed assistant, Dr. Kettering. Ygor begs Ludwig to use his brain instead, so he can become one with the Monster. Ludwig refuses on account of Ygor’s evil nature.

Elsa thinks the operation is a very dangerous idea, but her father insists on going ahead with it as soon as possible.

The plot thickens when Ygor asks Dr. Bohmer to use his brain so he can become a superman who lives forever, freed of his disfigured body. If Dr. Bohmer obeys, he’ll get all the medical glory he’s been denied as Ludwig’s mere assistant.

And meanwhile, the cops are hot on the Monster’s trail. Their search brings them to Ludwig’s house, which Ygor and the Monster have fled.

What sorts of murderous mayhem might the Monster make this time? And if the operation goes through, just whose brain will be used?

Posted in 1930s, holidays, Movies

The trophy hunting tables are turned

Released 16 September 1932, The Most Dangerous Game was based on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story of the same name. It was originally published in Collier’s on 19 January 1924 and illustrated by Wilmot Emerton Heitland, and won an O. Henry Award.

You might recognize the sets of the island from King Kong, which was in production at the same time.

Off the western coast of South America, a luxury yacht runs into unexpected navigation trouble when the lights of the buoys in the channels contradict the nautical charts. There are also a lot of sharks and coral reefs in these waters. Against warnings, orders are given to continue on the same course.

While the captain and skipper are trying to get out of this dangerous place, the passengers begin talking about their big game hunting and whether they’d consider changing places with the animals. This conversation is abruptly interrupted by a shipwreck, with no time to get into lifeboats. The only survivor is Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea).

Bob manages to come ashore an island, where he enters a large mysterious house. Inside are a mute Cossack butler, Ivan (Noble Johnson), and Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), the master of the so-called fortress. Count Zaroff tells Bob there have been many shipwrecks in the area, and that there are still several survivors living in the house.

As Ivan is showing Bob to a room where he can change into dry clothes and have a nice stiff drink, Bob notices the macabre pictures on the walls by the staircase and is filled with a foreboding mood.

Once Bob comes back downstairs in fresh clothes, he’s introduced to resident survivors of prior wrecks, among them siblings Eve and Martin Trowbridge (Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong). Count Zaroff highly praises Bob’s books on hunting, and says he’s a passionate hunter himself. So much does he live and breathe hunting, he almost lost his will to live when he was unable to hunt after escaping the Russian Revolution and relocating to this strange place. But now he’s invented a dangerous new hunting game, which he refuses to describe.

When Bob and Eve are alone, Eve says Count Zaroff is lying about letting her and Martin return to the mainland as soon as a ship comes in. In fact, a week ago there were four guests, two of whom went mysteriously missing when they went into the cellar with Count Zaroff.

Over Eve’s pleas that he retire to bed early, Martin nevertheless eagerly accepts an invitation to see Count Zaroff’s trophy room in the cellar. Martin is also very drunk.

Late at night, Eve comes into Bob’s room and says she’s worried about Martin. Hours have passed, and he hasn’t come upstairs yet. Hoping to get to the bottom of this, Bob and Eve go into the cellar.

A macabre sight awaits in the form of a human head mounted on the wall, followed by an even more horrifying, heartbreaking discovery. Count Zaroff and his servant goons then arrive, and aren’t exactly happy to see these intruders. Eve is carted off screaming, and Bob is shackled.

Count Zaroff finally admits his new most dangerous game is hunting humans from all these shipwrecks. He claims he hunts with honor, since he provides his guests with food, exercise, hunting clothes, weapons, and the advantage of the dark. The guests are sent out at dawn, to familiarize themselves with the island, and Count Zaroff comes out at midnight. Count Zaroff also admits he changed the light buoys to increase the amount of shipwrecks.

To date, he has never lost his game.

Bob refuses to play this game, since he’s not that type of hunter, but Count Zaroff gives him no choice. However, if Bob is still alive at 4 AM, Count Zaroff will give him the boathouse keys so he can escape.

Bob takes Eve with him at dawn, determined to find a way for both of them to avoid the game entirely and escape ahead of Count Zaroff’s arrival. They also try to lay a trap to catch Count Zaroff.

But when midnight comes and the other hunter joins the game, the stakes become even higher and more dangerous.