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 1950s, holidays, Movies

Horrors in an Austrian castle

The Black Castle, made during the twilight of the classic horror era, had a special pre-release show on Halloween 1952 and went into general release the next week. Among the first cities to screen it were Philadelphia and Los Angeles (the latter on 20 November). It premièred in NYC on Christmas. Between January–April 1953, it was only shown in Southern, Southeastern, and Midwestern cities with a population between 5,000–50,000. In August 1953, it finally was released to the entire U.S.

A few sources claim it premièred in Sweden, though I was unable to find any actual dates for this, and IMDB cites its Swedish opening as January 1953, after the NYC première.

On a dark and stormy night, two coffins are supposed to be closed and prepared for burial. The servants dispatched to this task notice the corpses look rather alive, and that their eyes aren’t closed. We then hear the desperate unspoken pleas from the man, begging them not to bury him alive.

What in the world led up to this?

Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) is determined to get to the bottom of his two friends’ disappearance. He’s convinced Count Carl von Bruno (Stephen McNally) of Austria had a hand in it, and talks his colleagues into letting him take on this mission.

While Ronald is at a nearby tavern called The Green Man, a sword fight breaks out, and his finger is scratched. It turns out that the two guys who started it are very close to Bruno.

Ronald presents himself at Bruno’s Black Forest castle as Richard Beckett. Also in the castle are Bruno’s buddies from the fight, one of whom, Count Steiken, was wounded and is screaming as he receives treatment from Dr. Meissen (Boris Karloff).

Bruno tells Ronald there’s going to be a leopard hunt very soon, with an imported leopard being contained (and very hungry) until it’s time to release him. To throw off Bruno’s suspicions about his real identity, Ronald insists he’s never gone hunting in Africa.

That night, Bruno’s new bride Elga (Rita Corday) walks in on Ronald while he’s snooping around the castle. Ronald pretends he was trying to find Bruno, and after striking up a friendly rapport with Elga, he’s led to Bruno in the cellar.

Also in the cellar is the caged leopard (who looks like an obvious panther), being tortured by servant Gargon (Lon Chaney, Jr.). Elga strongly objects to this upcoming canned hunt, and the sport of hunting in general. After Elga and Ronald leave, Bruno takes the whip from Gargon and starts torturing the poor defenceless animal too.

While Elga is leading Ronald to a strange secret room, a trap door is triggered by a stone on the floor, and they’re caught in a cage. Elga convinces her husband she got lost while trying to go another way, and Gargon releases them. Bruno reveals an alligator lagoon behind the door, and says there’s no getting past it if they want to escape.

The next day, the hunting party sets out, and Ronald catches the leopard after falling into a ditch. Bruno shoots the animal while Ronald is wrestling with him, which infuriates Ronald. It’s not good hunting etiquette to shoot someone else’s prey.

All is seemingly forgiven, however, when Bruno says he killed the leopard with Ronald’s own rifle, and gives him the winning prize of two beautiful dueling pistols, the pelt, and some money.

At a celebratory party that night, Ronald dances with Elga. When they’re speaking alone outside in the moonlight, Ronald recognizes a strange human head charm on her necklace, which matches a ring we saw him wearing after the tavern fight. Elga says she doesn’t know anything about it other than that it was a gift from Bruno.

It seems as though this is the beginning of a beautiful romance, but Elga’s suspicions are aroused when Ronald reveals he took the pendant from her while they were kissing on top of the stairs. She demands to know what he was really doing in her husband’s room and why he came here.

Ronald initially says he can’t explain, then closes the door (behind which an unknown someone is eavesdropping) and tells her Bruno is a murderer. Some years ago, he held power over a native tribe in Africa by posing as a white god, with the goal of gaining control of a fabulously rich empire. Ronald was there on an expedition at the same time. Though they never personally met, their forces were in battle together, and Bruno was wounded in the eye by one of Ronald’s men. This proved he was a mortal, not a god, and the natives rose up against him and drove him out of their country.

Ronald’s two best friends were there too, and Bruno swore he’d get revenge against them. Now Ronald is convinced Bruno murdered them. The natives gave each of them that pendant as a token of appreciation, and they swore they’d never part with these gifts. “Only murder could’ve placed this in the Count’s hands.”

Ronald says he’s leaving in the morning, but promises to return for Elga.

Dr. Meissen approaches Bruno and says his friend Count Steiken is waiting in the trophy room with a very interesting revelation. As Steiken is about to say something about Ronald, he drops dead.

Though nothing incriminating was said, Bruno goes to Elga’s room and claims Steiken told him all about her dalliance with Ronald. After she admits her feelings for Ronald and that she never married Bruno by choice, Bruno leaves her with the demented Gargon.

Bruno cordially bids farewell to Ronald in the morning, without letting on he knows about the affair. However, when he’s at The Green Man, Dr. Meissen comes to him with a story about Elga being in grave danger, and says Ronald must return. If not, Bruno will kill her just as he killed his first wife.

By the time Ronald returns, claiming he forgot his new dueling pistols, Bruno has been tipped off about Ronald’s suspicions of his murderous crime. Little does Ronald realize he’s walking right into a trap from which he might not escape.

Posted in 1940s, holidays, Movies

The Mummy’s saga continues

The Mummy’s Tomb, released 23 October 1942, was the second film in Universal’s new Mummy series, after The Mummy’s Hand (1940). Though this series, like the classic Boris Karloff film The Mummy (1932), also stars a mummy who was buried alive for trying to resurrect the woman he loved, everything else is completely unrelated.

Lon Chaney, Jr., made his début as the Mummy in this film, a role which was played by Tom Tyler in the previous film. To save money and time, Universal reused footage from Frankenstein, The Mummy’s Hand (which itself used scenes from The Mummy), and Bride of Frankenstein, along with part of the musical score from The Invisible Woman (1940).

The Mummy’s Tomb was released as a double feature with Night Monster (starring Béla Lugosi). Reviews were generally negative or mediocre.

Thirty years after the events of The Mummy’s Hand, archaeologist Dr. Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) relates this story to his doctor son John (John Hubbard), his sister Jane (Mary Gordon), John’s girlfriend Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox), and Isobel’s mother (Virginia Brissac) in Mapleton, Massachusetts. (The first ten minutes are primarily scenes from the earlier film.) 

He and his buddy Babe Hanson (Wallace Ford) participated in an expedition to find a mummy’s tomb, and all the Egyptians fled in terror when they broke the seal on the door. According to legend, anyone who violates that tomb will meet an untimely death.

Though they expected to find Princess Ananka, they discovered a man instead. Horrific chaos erupted when mummy Kharis came back to life, and Steve, Babe, and Steve’s future wife Marta barely escaped.

Steve brought back Ananka’s mummy, but has always regretted not bringing back Kharis. Still, at least he had the satisfaction of killing a monster and ridding the world of a horrible curse.

We then move back to Egypt, where elderly tomb guardian Andoheb (George Zucco) explains to his protégé Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) how to reanimate Kharis with tanna leaves under the light of a full Moon. Three to keep him alive, nine to give him motivation. (Later on, Mehemet says nine leaves give him movement.) In true horror sequel fashion, Andoheb survived being shot four times by Babe and rolling down a huge stone staircase, and Kharis survived being burnt alive by Steve.

Andoheb tells Mehemet a position as caretaker of Mapleton Cemetery has been arranged for him, entrusts him with carrying out the curse of Ananka, and makes him swear he won’t rest until every member of the Banning family and survivors of the expedition have been murdered. Andoheb then expires of old age.

Mehemet sails to America with Kharis, and asks the ship’s crew for privacy so he can say his prayers for the soul of his deceased dear one undisturbed. When he arrives at the cemetery, the outgoing caretaker is shocked to discover how young Mehemet is. Mehemet says their cultural philosophies are very different, and that he finds cemeteries very peaceful and a way to feel close to departed dear ones.

Mehemet wastes no time in reanimating Kharis and sending him on his murderous mission. The people of Mapleton see strange shadows outside their windows, hear eerie noises, and feel an unsettling presence, and horses and dogs go crazy when they sense Kharis.

Kharis scales the wall of the Banning house, enters a window, and attacks Steve. The only clue about who might’ve done it is the strange grey substance left on Steve’s neck, which doesn’t match any known dirt or dust. Neither the coroner nor sheriff can figure out any leads, so they invite reporters into town.

Babe also comes to Mapleton, and immediately realizes the greyish mark could’ve only come from a mummy. While John and Babe are en route to the Banning house from the depot, Kharis strikes again. Steve’s hired man Jim shoots him multiple times, but bullets are no match for Kharis, and Jim falls unconscious in paralytic shock. Kharis continues into the house and attacks Jane.

John thinks Babe’s mummy theory is ridiculous, but Babe insists the killer has to be a mummy, and that the grey substance was mold, not dirt or dust. When the sheriff and coroner also dismiss his theory, Babe goes to a restaurant and tells a reporter about Ananka’s curse.

Mehemet is also at the restaurant, and slips out to reanimate Kharis when he discovers Babe was part of the expedition. Later that night, Kharis attacks Babe.

John finds a strip of mummy bandage on a bush, and takes it in for forensic analysis. Just as Babe insisted, the evidence indeed comes from an Ancient Egyptian mummy and contains mold.

Shortly afterwards, John gets a telegram telling him of his appointment as captain of the medical corps in the military. He has to report to Ft. Myers in three days, giving him precious little time to solve the mummy mystery.

When Mehemet overhears John proposing to Isobel, he decides to spare John. Instead, Kharis will be sent to kidnap Isobel, and Isobel will become Mehemet’s wife and the mother of royal heirs to the high priesthood.

Mrs. Evans runs upstairs when she hears Isobel’s screams, and arrives just in time to see her daughter disappearing through the window.

Now the stage is set for a fiery confrontation with Kharis.

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?