VAMPIRE VISION: Adapting Nosferatu
By Alex Dawson
I’ve always been a werewolf man. For three Halloweens running, from second to fifth grade, I loped and howled, I blackened my nose and did my best, with fake fur and crepe wool, to imitate the yak fro of Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man. My stepfather was a trapper (I grew up on a farm in Alabama), and one year I even hung gray pelts, rabbit and squirrel, from the shoulders and chest of my costume (I kid you not.). But no one cares about werewolves. Vampires, on the other hand, are everywhere. Long the staple of fringe culture (genre fiction, comic books, B movies, Goth clubs), they have since permeated the mainstream. Indeed, Sookie Stackhouse scribe Charlaine Harris is the first author to have eight novels concurrently in the top ten, and, just this week, scientists discovered a new fanged fish which they named, you guessed it, Dracula.
Max Schreck as Count Orlock in F.W. Murnau's 1923 Nosferatu
But before Twilight and True Blood, before Dracula even, there was Nosferatu. Nosferatu is a 1923 German Expressionist film by F.W. Murnau (one of the most influential directors of the silent era). Released ten years before the iconic Bela Lugosi movie, Nosferatu, a.k.a. Count Orlock, is sometimes labeled “The First Vampire.” Dracula is handsome and aristocratic, a satin lined cape and hair as black and shiny as the back of a beetle; Orlock, quite simply, is not. But this physical distinction, while the most obvious, is decidedly superficial. On the other hand, the addition of the bubonic rats, which Orlock shepherds and, with his medial incisors, resembles, is profound. The vermin tie Nosferatu to the Black Death, couching the story in world history and suggesting an epic context that Dracula, I don’t think, has. But it’s a silent film, the plague references are brief and few, just a handful of exclamatory title cards (“The plague!”); the context needed cultivating.
I first learned about the plague in sixth grade. I remember a particular picture in my History textbook: a woodcut of a man in a ground skimming coat and a mask with a long curved beak. At the top of the picture, in worn, chiseled font, were the words “Plague Doctor” (the beak, I would learn, held aromatic herbs meant to filter the “bad air”). I was horrified by the bulbous black lesions, which were, almost always, odiously described as “egg shaped,” and obsessed with the rats. (Rats have always scared me more than, say, bats. Bats feel remote, flitting and wheeling overhead as if whirled on invisible strings; rats are land bound, among us, they’re in our walls, under our beds. My brother used to shoot them—fat, black, corn fed things—in our grain shed, and one winter, attracted by the heat of my electric blanket, one scampered, no, lumbered, also fat, this time on graham crackers, across my chest.) Later, in art school, I was haunted by a lecture hall slide of Breugel’s pandemic panorama, The Triumph of Death, with its skeleton armies, its black sea littered with burning ships, its dog nibbling the face of a child, its rats.
Triumph of Death, painted c. 1562 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Preparing to adapt the film, I dug back into the “culture” of the plague (a quick Google search brought up both the woodcut and the panorama). I learned about Justus Hecker (who studied the plague’s relationship to human history), acral necrosis (when extremities darken with gangrene), and what, exactly, a bobak is (sort of a Russian prairie dog). I read the work of contemporaneous writers, Boccacio, Petrarch, and Thomas Nashe, whose poem, A Litany in Time of Plague, with its terrifying refrain “we are sick, we will die,” ultimately provided the production with its mantra. As the play took shape, it began to echo the epistolary structure of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel (which I’d reread), drawing on letters, diary entries, and medical journal excerpts to suggest, not just the existence of vampires (as they do in the book), but also Orlock’s particular involvement, or, at the very least, presence, at every major outbreak in the disease’s Godforsaken history.
But despite his recurring connection to the “Great Pestilence,” I somehow thought Orlock, fiendishly inhuman in the movie, should, instead, be an anti-hero; a perturber and disturber, and, yes, a bloodsucker, but not dead level evil. I saw him as a creature whose existence was marked by a very human sense of loss and loneliness, concerned not only with the heart as blood pumping aorta, but also the heart as poetic source of love. As a character reference, I thought of Tennyson’s titular Tithonus, who asks for immortality but forgets to ask for eternal youth (and grows ever older, yearning, all the while, for death); and of Shakespeare’s Richard the III, an ugly hunchback, “rudely stamped” by God, who responds to the anguish of his condition with an outcast's credo: "I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days."
Make-up artist Dan Diana with Carlyle Owens in partial Orlock guise.
But RobPat Orlock ain’t, and while my vampire wasn’t a straight out monster, he still had to look the part. Enter foam baker/Tom Savini protégé Dan Diana. (Tom Savini is a makeup artist famous for the Romero Dead flicks and Tarantino’s vampire movie, Dusk ‘til Dawn. Savini has a school in western Pennsy, what Dead heads call zombie country, and Dan is a graduate.) Dan fitted Shakespearean actor Carlyle Owens (who generously agreed to shave his head, sparing us the seam and crinkle of a latex bald cap) with the indelible ears, claws, teeth, and a set of those milky contacts that white out the eye, leaving just a pin prick pupil in the center. The Dan/Carlyle Nosferatu is startling. Shocking, even. Which is a good thing. Indeed, even as I poeticize Orlock’s dilemma and expand his historic context, even as I weave in lines of Shakespeare and Tennyson and Thomas Nashe, my ultimate goal is no grander than a haunted house or a hayride. Simply put: I want to scare the hell out of you.