(Mis)Understanding a Monster: Dracula Retrospective #1, “Nosferatu”

(Mis)Understanding a Monster: Dracula Retrospective #1, “Nosferatu”

Film: Nosferatu

Dracula/Dracula Analogue Performed by: Max Schreck

Year: 1922

Director: F.W. Murnau

Country: Germany

Character Type: Monstrously Othered Foreign Invader

Before we begin, yes, I’m aware that F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu isn’t exactly the first film adaptation of Dracula. There’s a Hungarian film called Dracula’s Death that, like a great many silent films, is presumed lost, though we may yet find a print of it in someone’s grandparents’ basement. As is, there’s really no way for anybody to watch it, so we’ll gloss over it. Dodgier still, there’s reports of a Russian Dracula film from 1920, simply titled Drakula, but there’s not enough evidence to properly conclude that this film even actually exists, so for our purposes, Nosferatu is the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel.

And what an adaptation it is.

I dare say Nosferatu has produced the most iconic imagery and contributions to modern vampire-related popular culture of any of the material on this list. It’s been visually quoted (particularly this shot) in everything from Batman Returns to Spongebob Squarepants, and its introduction of sunlight as a vulnerability for vampires has influenced multiple generations of vampire fiction. It’s also a huge standout of the German Expressionist movement, a wave of bizarre anti-realism that influenced hundreds of filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Dario Argento to Wes Craven. Its pop culture imprint is so vast and powerful that it’s almost become its own thing, apart from the novel it’s adapting: it’s been remade by Werner Herzog (we’ll talk about that later) not as a re-working of Stoker’s novel but specifically as an expansion on Murnau’s film. It was also re-envisioned as Shadow of the Vampire, this time from the perspective of a fictionalized Murnau realizing that “Max Schreck” is actually a vampire just like the character he’s portraying in the film, but I’m not going to talk about that in this retrospective (though it is well worth checking out).

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“Moana,” “Rogue One” and How 2016’s Studio Films Failed Us

“Moana,” “Rogue One” and How 2016’s Studio Films Failed Us

[WARNING: Contains spoilers for both Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Moana. You’ve been warned.]

In the past week, I saw two very different Disney-owned properties. On one hand, there was a family-friendly animated musical adventure loosely based on Pacific Islander folklore; and on the other, there was a spinoff to one of the most successful franchises ever that focused on war and gritty reality IN SPACE and was decidedly not for children. Oddly enough, I found a lot of bizarre similarities in both of them. Not necessarily in story or themes, but how they fit into 2016’s studio filmmaking climate and Disney’s modern branding.

As I have often complained, 2016 was an absolutely hideous year for studio films. Many were outright disasters of construction and born of either incompetence or choking on ambition (e.g. Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, Warcraft, Alice Through the Looking Glass) and the ones that weren’t were either bland and dull (e.g. The Legend of Tarzan, The Huntsman: Winter’s War) or stunk of a particularly noxious white cishet male cult of personality (e.g. Sausage Party, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). So really, it was less a search for studio films that were good and more one for films that kept their heads above water well enough that they weren’t considered utter garbage.

Neither Moana nor Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a particularly great film; both have crippling flaws that keep me from wholeheartedly embracing their good qualities. On the other hand, they still manage to be relatively functional on a film level, so they were rewarded with massive box office grosses and effusive praise. Okay, that’s mean, but my question remains as to why we continue to reward mediocrity rather than showcase greatness, and both of these films are emblematic of trends in studio filmmaking that have been particularly prominent this year.

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Quick Takes: Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie”

Quick Takes: Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie”

“Nothing’s ever mine. Not to keep, anyway,” Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) remarks near the end of Jackie, but it’s not for lack of trying. Jackie depicts the iconic First Lady as someone constantly trying to keep her life stitched together in the face of pressure the likes of which most people can’t even imagine. There’s a lot that’s laudable about Larraín’s picture, but the element I’d like to focus on is Portman’s masterful performance in the title role.

Natalie Portman, I believe, is a perennially underrated actor, despite having won an Academy Award and having another nomination. She, like Keanu Reeves, has a reputation for looking like she’s not really doing anything special. But that’s really what makes her so good: she does great work without making it look like a breathless Herculean undertaking. Even in terrible films like Your Highness and No Strings Attached, she embodies her characters fully, prioritizing physicality and interiority over physical transformations. She adopts method acting techniques, but minus the arrogant showboating of many actors that have come to be associated with the label.

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(Mis)Understanding a Monster: Dracula Retrospective Introduction

(Mis)Understanding a Monster: Dracula Retrospective Introduction

So. Dracula.

Talking about Count Dracula as a character and cultural icon is a rather daunting task, as he’s appeared in over 200 films, plus numerous plays, books, TV shows, et cetera, constantly changing in how his character is framed and presented. Though the novelist who birthed this creature of the night was Irish, his cultural impact has been felt far, far from Ireland’s shores. Most of us know who Count Dracula is, but how many of us truly know him in his multitudes, from a repulsive, barely-human beast to a Nice Guy who just wanted to save his wife and son (yes, really)?

Obviously, it’d probably take years to watch every single bit of Dracula media ever made, from the direct-to-garbage bin schlock to the big-budget studio productions to the barely-concealed fanfic, so I won’t be covering every single bit of Dracula media ever. I want to try and cover as much ground as I can, however. The way Dracula the character has been re-shaped over time to suit the needs of numerous creators is fascinating; it constantly reflects cultural attitudes towards women, foreign countries, sexuality, and religion. The way writers and directors grapple with the social mores of the Victorian period (or don’t, tellingly) in contemporary contexts is fascinating from multiple critical perspectives, and hopefully I’ll be able to dig into why the different versions of the character over the years make the changes they do.

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