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Sunday, July 13, 2008
One of Michael Emerson's Five Creepiest Characters of All Time: Nosferatu
Written by Cindy Collins Smith
Published July 07, 2008
"Creepy" is the first word viewers use to describe Ben Linus, former leader of The Others on Lost. Some time back, Entertainment Weekly got Michael Emerson, the actor who plays Ben, to reveal who he credits with giving the five creepiest performances in film and television history. EW later posted the video on YouTube.
So who creeps Michael Emerson out? First up is Max Schreck in Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.
I saw Nosferatu for the first time when I was in college. It was during a fund raiser for the Dallas PBS station, KERA — the same station that first brought Monty Python to the U.S. (as they were fond of telling us whenever they wanted us to open up our wallets).
On that Saturday night, KERA played a double vampire feature, starting with the 1974 BBC Dracula starring Louis Jourdan. It floored me. Jourdan's Dracula was so handsome, so sexy, yet so dangerous. Not to mention that the production, unlike all the others I'd seen, was largely faithful to the Bram Stoker novel.
I don't think that anyone that's even seen a still from that movie can argue with him being something really horrifying. — Michael Emerson
But the Jourdan Dracula was not to be the evening's big event. KERA was saving its "special" vampire feature for the wee hours: the 1922 German silent movie that kicked off the whole cinematic vampire trend. Nosferatu. At that time, 30 years ago, it was largely unavailable and infrequently seen.
Directed by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu adapted Bram Stoker's Dracula, playing up the creepy and eerie qualities of the tale. Alfred Hitchcock, who learned about storyboarding from Murnau during a 1924 assignment in Berlin, regarded Murnau as the master of "pure cinema", i.e. visual, rather than strictly narrative, storytelling.
But regardless of Murnau's credentials or Nosferatu's place in vampire movie history, I frankly didn't know what to make of it. It wasn't really what I would call a "scary" film. It didn't have any sudden shocks or screams, no blood or gore. Instead, it slowly unfolded its eerie atmosphere and mounting sense of doom.
I had no framework for it. Most vampire movies since the 1930s played up the vampire's romantic, or at least sexual, angle. Bela Lugosi's Dracula seduced victims with physical beauty, magnetism, and charm. Christopher Lee's Dracula overpowered them with a hypnotic quality coupled with a sexually charged animalistic ferocity. But this?
Nosferatu's Count Orlok was animalistic all right... but in a repulsive, rodentlike way. He had long claws for fingernails, pointed ears, a bald head, sunken eyes, and fangs replacing his incisors rather than his canine teeth. He looked like a giant rat — and not surprisingly, rats accompanied his coffin. Here there was no romance, no sexuality. Just an instinct-driven thirst for blood. This was hardly my first silent movie — or even my first German expressionist one. In fact, I already regarded The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as one of my favorite films. I think the confusion I experienced that night over Nosferatu came from the sheer shock of it. I had loved cinematic vampires since I was a kid, and this movie subverted everything I thought I knew about them. It was a little much to handle at the time.
It did leave an impression though. Once the initial shock wore off, the brilliance of Murnau's "Symphony of Horror" became clearer. For years afterward, I remembered the repulsiveness of the vampire. But most of all, I remembered the shadow his long fingernails cast on the wall as he crept slowly through the house towards his victim. Nearly 65 years later, long ripping nails would become a staple of the hopping Chinese vampire movies.
All in all, Michael Emerson's choice of Max Schreck in Nosferatu is an excellent place to begin any discussion of creepy characters. The role is so legendarily creepy that it inspired the Oscar-nominated movie Shadow of the Vampire to postulate that only an actual vampire could have pulled it off. Ergo, Max Schreck could be nothing other than a real vampire playing the cinematic role of vampire!