Format: DVD

Release date: 22 October 2007

Distributor: Tartan Video

Title Aragami

Director: Ryuhei Kitamura

Cast: Takao Osawa, Masaya Kato

Title 2LDK

Director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi

Cast: Maho Nonami, Eiko Koike

Japan 2003

145 mins

Presented as the latest in Tartan’s Asia Extreme series, The Duel Project sees two established Japanese directors crafting a film each in an enticing filmic experiment. Born out of the short film anthology Jam Films (2002), directors Yukihiro Tsutsumi and Ryuhei Kitamura were challenged by producer Shinya Kawai to create a full feature each, using only one set, as few actors as possible, with only one week of shooting and the same unifying theme – a fight to the death.

The project begins with Kitamura’s Aragami, a period thriller that shows a wounded samurai and a companion enter a Buddhist sanctuary in search of refuge. Passing out on entry, the warrior wakes days later to find his friend missing and himself at the hands of a cryptic combatant who emerges as a near-immortal demonic creature in search of a worthy opponent. Before the samurai has time to comprehend the situation he is drawn into a succession of frenzied bouts with the deadly Aragami of the title, gradually recognising his opponent’s weaknesses as he discovers more about the legend.

Kitamura’s segment boasts a stunning set, which allows for striking use of colour and shadows. The film’s high point sees the warriors duel in total darkness, igniting the screen with brief glimpses of light as their weapons clash. The film also touches upon a slightly sadomasochistic element of the warriors’ relationship, similarly explored in Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer. These elements are weakened, however, by a relatively dull script which allows for little character development, where each ‘level’ of conflict is broken up with uninteresting banter between the two characters. The resulting film, while at times exciting, drags for the most part, and at its very worst feels like watching two people playing Mortal Kombat on a games console.

Tsutsumi’s 2LDK, however, emerges as a peach of a feature. Running at only 68 minutes, the film exemplifies what can be achieved with few resources. It focuses on two modern young female flatmates, both actresses going for the same film role, both sleeping with the same man. As differences and confrontational attitudes escalate, the girls’ frustration manifests itself physically. What begins as writing names on fridge items slowly grows to such extents as electrocution, battery with household objects and attempted chainsaw attacks.

While the film may appear on paper as a version of Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox’s domestic bout in Kill Bill stretched out as a feature, 2LDK goes way beyond such comparisons to deliver a perfectly paced thriller that continually surprises with inventive twists and nasty treats. Maho Nonami and Eiko Koike excel as the viscous tenants, crafting strangely believable characters amidst the extreme plotting. The true greatness of the film, however, lies in the hands of Tsutsumi, who expertly builds the tension in a gradual manner before unleashing hell. The single location of the girls’ flat actually heightens the film’s impact, creating a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere while also providing endlessly imaginative set-pieces.

The Duel Project surfaces as a mixed bag. In spite of certain impressive visual elements, Aragami remains a disappointment, which is surprising as Kitamura is the more iconic of the two directors, having made hits such as Versus and Azumi. The price paid for the DVD, however, is well worth it for 2LDK alone, which proves itself to be one of the most decadent delights to come out of Japan in recent years.

James Merchant


The Shout

Format: DVD

Release date: 22 October 2007

Distributor: Network

Directors: Jerzy Skolimowski

Based on the story by Robert Graves

Cast: Alan Bates, John Hurt, Susannah York

UK 1978

83 mins

Although less well-known than some of his compatriots, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski has built a unique, although little seen, collection of films both in his native Poland and elsewhere. Early in his career he served as a screen writer for both Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski (co-writing Knife in the Water) with whom, it could be argued, he shares a certain macabre sensibility.

Made in 1978, The Shout is a post-Hammer British horror film perhaps more reminiscent of the films of Nicolas Roeg, particularly Walkabout and Don’t Look Now. Like Roeg’s films it is intelligent, ambiguous and slow-paced and it puts much emphasis on mood of place – although in this case it’s a sleepy village in north Devon.

It is the story of a man who can kill with a shout – a skill he learnt, we discover, whilst living with (what is often short-hand for a pre-civilised society) the Australian aborigines. A somewhat unreliable narrator recounts the events in flashback to the writer Robert Graves (on whose story the film is based) whilst the two men keep score during a cricket match.

At times it seems like a well-directed episode of the Hammer House of Horror (if Harold Pinter had written it) but the mood and tension between the characters help it rise above that level. This is certainly helped by the top-class British cast – Alan Bates (in a strange reprisal of his role in Whistle Down the Wind) with Susannah York and John Hurt as the married couple whose complacent and staid relationship is slowly torn apart by this strange interloper. Bates’ mysterious ‘cuckoo’ dominates each scene but it is Hurt and York who give the film its humanity – although none of the characters are particularly sympathetic.

One of the film’s greatest achievements is the way in which it makes such quintessential symbols of Englishness as cricket scoreboards, church organs and cottages seem so strange and alien (perhaps due to the film being made by a Polish director). The cricket match is played between doctors and patients at a mental home. Susannah York’s soul is ‘captured’ through the theft of that hippy symbol – a sandal buckle. This clash between the mundane and the supernatural is particularly notable in the contrast between the realist photography and the extraordinary soundtrack. John Hurt’s character is an avant-garde musician creating sounds through recording everyday objects such as a broken spam tin or marbles rolling in water and altering them electronically. The character’s music is heard throughout the film although Bates’ Crossley claims his music is ’empty’ and lacks imagination. His own supernatural shout doesn’t disappoint when finally demonstrated and actually sounds as if it might kill. But it is the cry of the peacocks throughout the cricket match that is perhaps the most eerie.

It is a puzzling and ambiguous film that doesn’t seem to have any clear motivations but is more about creating a disquieting atmosphere – the slow pace certainly adds to the mood of intimate awkwardness. Whether it is a horror film or not is debatable but it undoubtedly succeeds in creating a disturbing and quite genuinely creepy world.

Paul Huckerby



Format: DVD

Release date: 24 September 2007

Distributor: Sony Pictures

Director: Satoshi Kon

Based on: the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Screenplay: Seishi Minakami and Satoshi Kon

Japan 2006

90 mins

If Satoshi Kon worked in live action, he would have a reputation as a director who confidently blends genres and seems happy to work in any of them. His oeuvre includes the films Perfect Blue (a Hitchcockian or rather De Palma-esque thriller about stalking) and Millenium Actress (a tale of ageing and lost love) plus the terrific TV series Paranoia Agent, about a creature from the collective subconscious who kills those overwhelmed by guilt and lost opportunities. Paprika combines all these themes but is somehow less than the sum of its parts. This might be because Paranoia Agent at its best is one of the finest animés ever produced while Perfect Blue (though overrated) has won such great reknown that audiences are waiting for a perfect follow-up.

This is not to say that Paprika isn’t entertaining or beguiling; there are plenty of scenes that will stay with the viewer long after the film has ended. This is a film that offers extraordinary spectacle, so it is a shame the first UK release comes on DVD. The visuals are crafted with great subtlety and photographic skill, and the film boasts the most exemplary handling of dappled and reflected light ever seen in a cartoon. This is not simply a technical accomplishment, but is used to infer that a person’s subconscious is a skewed reflection of the real world and that their dreams are realms of shadows and ethereal light.

The opening sequence depicting a cop’s nightmares, ranging from the big top to film noir, is startling and arresting. The idea of a dream virus that reduces people to babbling idiots in the conscious world and sees them trapped in a parade of junk imagery from late twentieth-century zeitgeist (showing the pollution of the collective subconscious with adverts and jingles, to use one of Alan Moore’s metaphors) is a powerful one. The film utilises a melange of imagery from not only the Western world but across Asia, and sees our heroine Paprika take on the identity of Monkey from the seminal 1970s TV series (itself based on a sixteenth-century Chinese folk tale) to fight giant frogs and good luck charms, a mishmash of international symbols. This may leave casual viewers bewildered, and as we near the end of the film, the narrative becomes as hard to grasp as the final monster of smoke and shadows. Add to that that the plot feels over-familiar and you have a film that is overall something of a mixed bag.

But if it’s spectacle you’re looking for, Paprika delivers in spades: Roll up! Roll up! Come see the amazing flying redhead on her magic cloud! Gasp as the fattest man on earth creates brain-scanning devices that bring your wildest fantasies to life! Paprika certainly has enough attractions to hook potential new fans, and will hopefully lead them towards the director’s more esoteric and challenging work.

Alex Fitch



Format: DVD

Release date: 7 January 2007

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Anders Morgenthaler

Writers: Mette Heeno, Anders Morgenthaler

Cast: Thure Lindhardt, Stine Fischer Christensen

Denmark 2006

78 mins

Anders Morgenthaler‘s first feature successfully fuses animation with a little live action to create an aesthetically superb film with a baffling message. The technique of merging visual formats is innovative and effective. Morgenthaler had used it in his graduation film Araki – The Killing of a Japanese Photographer, which ensures a clear stylistic continuity in the director’s work. Heavily influenced by animé, the gorgeous visual style of Princess can also be attributed to lead production designer Rune Fisker.

August, the film’s protagonist, is a young man of the cloth. Upon the death of his porn-star sister, August recovers Mia, his abused and neglected five-year-old niece, and she joins him on a crusade of bloody revenge against every man, woman and building involved in the Danish sex industry.

‘Fuck porno’, says Morgenthaler in his director’s statement, and this is clearly intended to be a political work. The pornography industry of Denmark is no doubt as seedy and savage as it is portrayed, and the film’s anti-porn sentiments are obvious. Morgenthaler’s actual motivations and intentions, however, are far from clear, leaving the viewer in the dark as to what the film is actually trying to say.

August’s mission is overtly Christian and God literally lights the way for his merciless, blood-drenched massacre at certain points. August and Mia hold nothing back during their killing spree. August arranges for Mia (bearing in mind that the character is five years old) to use a crow bar to hack away the genitals and then the skull of her former abuser. This level of violence, though animated, is strongly reminiscent of Irréversible – it is nauseating and hard to watch. Just because Tarantino made animé í¼ber-violence cool in his animated flashback in Kill Bill, an entire movie in the same style isn’t any less vacuous.

Understandably, Morgenthaler has aggressive views about porn and what better way to vent these than in the same medium he abhors; however, the extreme violence accompanied by the concept that modern Christian values would support this type of vengeance is preposterous. The notion that porn is so evil that it can only be conquered by psychotic waves of mass slaughter is horrible, it makes no sense and if anything makes Morgenthaler’s anti-porn sentiments ridiculous. His hero comes out far worse than the much loathed sex industry.

There’s a pretentious naivety about this muddled message: The sex industry is bad, whilst grotesque violence is cool. For Morgenthaler, porn means distance whilst eroticism means intimacy. Without wishing to defend the undoubtedly nasty industry that is porn, it seems quite obvious from the vastness of it, its diversity as a ‘genre’ and its overwhelming and perpetual popularity that the debate isn’t so black and white. I’m sure that bad outweighs the good when it comes to porn but the influences of Michael Winner and Lars Von Trier (the film was produced by his company Zentropa) have led to a film that is more polemic than political.

It might simply come down to Morgenthaler being by his own description a ‘neo-purist’, unlike the majority of his audience, this reviewer included. That said, the film is so thought-provoking, so visually impressive, that it comes highly recommended. If anything, it is sure to elicit a strong response, which is more than can be said about most current films.

Jessica Fostekew

Read the interview with Anders Morgenthaler


Rescue Dawn

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 November 2007

Venues: London West End and Nationwide

Distributor Pathe

Director: Werner Herzog

Cast: Christian Bale, Zach Grenier, Marshall Bell

US 2006

126 minutes

Rescue Dawn is an unlikely adaptation: Werner Herzog has made a feature film based on one of his own documentaries. Viewers may forgive him this unusual act of recycling insofar as his documentary films are already widely known for blurring the boundaries between facts and fiction. ‘It’s all just movies’, he has famously declared. Both films concern Dieter Dengler, a German-born US pilot who was shot down in the early stages of the Vietnam War and held prisoner in a POW camp in Laos until he made a daring escape. Dengler tells the story in his own words in the memoir Escape from Laos, and Herzog, charmed by Dengler, subsequently filmed the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

What comes across most profoundly in that earlier film is Herzog’s affection for his subject. Dengler has a fascinating way of narrating events and is clearly motivated by an attempt to make the most of life’s difficult circumstances. This admiration also comes across in Rescue Dawn, which Herzog wrote and directed. Even in the POW camp, Dengler, played here by Christian Bale, finds ways to make a feast from a plateful of maggots and encourages his fellow prisoners’ fantasies about the foods they once loved to eat. As he appears in both films, Dengler not only needed to fly, but needed to flee as well. It’s difficult to imagine a camp that could have contained him.

Bale cleverly underplays the part, diminishing the real Dieter’s quirks and Germanic speech patterns. It is an astonishingly restrained performance, which is all the more unexpected given the fact that this is a film made by a director who descended several times into jungles with Klaus Kinski. Jeremy Davies, on the other hand, goes a bit Kinski. Davies has always acted with his whole body (in films from Solaris to Spanking the Monkey). Here too, the actor’s emaciated torso is used to uniquely expressive effect. Gene DeBruin, the prisoner played by Davies, is presented as a reluctant participant in his own escape and is curiously antagonistic to the group’s aspirations to freedom. His real-life family has objected to Herzog’s account, and the director may indeed have taken liberties, but Davies’ character – as it is written and performed – cuts a powerful counterpart to Bale’s Dengler.

It may not have been necessary to have Bale eat maggots (as has been claimed) in order to achieve authenticity, but Herzog likes to film in tough circumstances so real stress and strain will pour through his performers’ faces and past the edges of the cinematic frame. He wants us to feel that we can, as he says, ‘believe our eyes again’. There are places in the film where less realism but more reality may have been called for. The Allied air war against Germany inspired Dengler to become a pilot, so it is more curious that he wanted to become a US pilot. Though this is discussed in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog makes only slight mention of the point in Rescue Dawn. The film takes place during the Vietnam War, and not before or after. The images of the Asian jungle are lush, though they hardly reach the expressive heights of Aguirre, Wrath of God. The narrative too is a bit tidier than some of Herzog’s fans may expect. While the director had a love-hate relationship with Kinski, his feelings for Dengler are less ambiguous, which may account for the somewhat surprising straightforwardness of the film’s ending.

Brad Prager

The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth by Brad Prager is published by Wallflower Press.


The Wayward Cloud

Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 November 2007

Venues: BFI Southbank and Key Cities

Distributor Axiom Films

Director: Tsai Ming Liang

Title: The Wayward Cloud

Original title: Tian bian yi duo yun

Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-Ching

Taiwan/France 2005

114 minutes

Title: I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

Original title: Hey yan quan

Cast: Norman Bin Atun, Chen Shiang-chyi

Taiwan/France 2006

115 minutes

Released simultaneously in the UK in November, Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud (2005) and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) are two disparate and challenging pieces of work from this Asian auteur. Well-established in art-house circles as a filmmaker with a unique style and vision, Ming-liang’s two recent films will inevitably alienate a large number of cinema-goers while delighting a smaller group of enthusiastic fans.

While both movies explore similar themes (loneliness, urban dislocation, desire, an obsession with water) The Wayward Cloud is the more immediately engaging film of the two. Set in a scorching, drought-ridden Taipei, it revolves around the irresistible attraction between a young porn star, played by Lee Kang-sheng, and an innocent, enigmatic young woman played by Chen Shiang-chyi (both also star in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone) The film is part musical, part porn, utterly surreal, erotic and emotionally gripping. Ming-liang provokes his audience right from the first scene: a woman in a nurse’s uniform lies spread-eagled on a bed in a sterile white room, while Lee licks and fingers a ripe, hot-pink watermelon between her legs.

The camera is never far from the actors in The Wayward Cloud, wordlessly capturing their every nuanced emotion. Ming-liang’s long takes infuse the film with poetical lyricism, allowing the characters to develop naturally as they begin to bridge their terrible isolation. Despite the explicit intercourse with his co-stars, Lee is emotionally detached and painfully alone. He is a romantic, expressing his yearning through the bitter-sweet lyrics of ‘A Half Moon’, wondering what ‘can soothe my heart so blue’. A chance encounter with Chen blossoms into a tentative romance, their desire for each other swelling from small, tender gestures to a tumultuous, desperate climax in the film’s notorious finale.

After The Wayward Cloud, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone comes across as a self-indulgent, monumentally tedious film, lacking all of the charm and humour of the earlier work. Set in the smog-filled streets of Kuala Lumpur, the film revolves around the frustrations of two men, both somewhat confusingly played by Lee. One is a successful composer, now paralysed and possibly comatose, the other a homeless man brutally beaten and left for dead by a gang of grifters. Found by a group of immigrant Bangladeshi workers, he is taken back to their squat where he is lovingly nursed back to health by the devoted Rawang (Norman Bin Atun). The sparse film is infused with homoeroticism, setting the stage for a love triangle involving a lonely waitress at a seedy café, played by Chen, who is also forced to bathe and care for the paralysed man by his wife and her boss.

Ming-liang’s trademark static long takes, often lasting minutes, and the virtually non-existent dialogue are minimalist techniques that have earned the director a cult following. Pushed to the limit, they make I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone almost unbearable to watch. The director seems to do everything possible to prevent the audience from forming some kind of emotional bond with his characters, his nocturnal long shots keeping them at such a remote distance from the camera that for much of the film it’s virtually impossible to identify the character with the actor. While his shots may be perfectly and elegantly composed, they just aren’t enough to redeem a film that is so alienating to all but die-hard enthusiasts.

Tsai Ming-liang’s reputation is based on creating artistic works diametrically opposed to the bland, lowest-common-denominator junk churned out by Hollywood. However, while The Wayward Cloud is a piece of provocative, stimulating cinema, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is too mired in its own pretensions to be enjoyed simply as a film.

Sarah Cronin



Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 November 2007

Venues: BFI Southbank and Key Cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Terence Fisher

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Melissa Stribling, Michael Gough

UK 1958

82 mins

What better way to mark the 50th anniversary of Hammer Horror than with the re-release of Dracula – not only Hammer’s first take on the Bram Stoker classic, but undoubtedly its finest. Thanks to the BFI National Archive, a new generation of cinema-goers can now enjoy director Terence Fisher’s vampire saga in a beautifully restored version. Blood and gore never looked more appetising.

UK critics had a very different opinion upon the film’s original release: ‘There should be a new certificate – S for sadistic or just D for disgusting’, warned an outraged Daily Telegraph, whilst the Daily Express branded it ‘one of the most revolting pictures in years!’ Mercifully, the public paid little attention and Dracula (shot on a shoestring budget of í‚£82,000) became a box-office smash.

So what was all the fuss about? Was it the fact that Hammer’s version took liberties with the original source material, upsetting Stoker purists? Or was it the film’s daring concoction of graphic horror and sex upsetting the moralists? The answer is, both. To begin with, Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay adaptation had to be cut due to budgetary restrictions. After a terrifying opening in Dracula’s castle (emphasised by James Bernard’s legendary score), the action switches to nearby Karlstadt as opposed to Whitby in Yorkshire. ‘I didn’t bring Dracula to England because we couldn’t afford a boat’, remarked Sangster. Insect-munching lunatic Renfield is completely absent, while high-flying estate agent Jonathan Harker is downshifted to a humble librarian.

None of these changes, however, do Hammer’s fast-paced version any harm, largely thanks to Christopher Lee’s menacing performance. Lee’s Dracula is not just a cold-blooded animal but also a skilled seducer – it is always clear how much his victims enjoy the Count’s nocturnal bites. Such scenes established the then 38-year-old actor as the new superstar of Gothic horror, and this first Dracula vehicle was to remain his favourite – ‘it would allow me to speak proper sentences’, Lee once remarked.

The action kicks off with Harker arriving at the castle, posing as a librarian but really on a mission to destroy Dracula forever. He is soon acquainted with a buxom beauty claiming to be the Count’s captive. Valerie Gaunt – Hammer’s original vampire babe – is truly mesmerising, playing out her wanton lust to the max. Unfortunately, her seductive powers will save neither her nor Harker from a sticky end, and soon Professor Van Helsing, whose character is given a clever twist by Peter Cushing’s fierce portrayal, sets off to search for his missing friend.

Meanwhile, the Count has discovered the Holmwood household and with it Lucy (Carol Marsh), his next victim. After Lucy’s gory staking at the hands of Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough), the Count moves on to seduce and kidnap Arthur’s wife. Melissa Stribling is terrific as Mina Holmwood, laughing off her husband’s concern about how ill she looks (we already know the reason for her deathly pallor). In a breathtaking finale back in the castle, Dracula and his opponents are drawn together in the ultimate showdown – at least until the next of eight sequels.

Claudia Andrei



Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 November 2007

Venues: London West End and Key Cities

Distributor: Contender Films

Director: Allan Moyle

Cast: Scott Speedman, Matt Frewer, Joey Beck, Wes Bentley, Taryn Manning

US/Canada 2007

90 mins

The sign on the way into town reads: ‘Weedsville, pop: 490,000’. It’s a run-down, post-industrial city on a wrong turn somewhere off the interstate where disenfranchised youth get high in derelict factories and Satanists sacrifice virgins in the drive-in theatre on the outskirts of town. There are still nice parts of the city where the effluent discharge hasn’t fully polluted the river and where you can find nineteenth-century mansions lovingly restored, home to self-help gurus and their followers…

Director Allan Moyle has a love/hate relationship with cinema. After his first film in 1980, he was so disaffected that he didn’t make another movie for a decade. He returned with the blistering Pump Up the Volume, a showcase for rising star Christian Slater, which provided a voice for the fears of Generation X. He again articulated the concerns of the zeitgeist – in this case corporations absorbing small town life – with Empire Records, an endearing ‘dramedy’ that helped kick-start the careers of Liv Tyler and Renée Zellweger.

So, what went wrong (again)? Certainly for the last twelve years, Moyle has made films that ended up in discount racks or were just plain embarrassing to watch. Whatever the cause, the director has finally made a terrific new film that follows up on the promise of his early work. Weirdsville takes a scattershot approach to its themes and subject matter – again looking at dissatisfied youth (his favorite and most successful theme) – mixing heroin abuse, murder, brain-washing and suburban ennui to delirious effect. His experiences in the movie industry may have led the director to absolve all credit for the success of this film, but the ease with which he keeps so many disparate plates juggling in Weirdsville shows a filmmaker at the top of his game.

Funny, moving, beautifully shot and above all bonkers, this is a film that is desperate for an audience, but no less likeable for that. Occupying the middle ground between turgid stoner comedies like Dude, where’s my car? and romanticized, stylish dramas such as Trainspotting, Weirdsville deftly moves from traumatic overdose scenes to the generic horror of Satanist rituals, from drama to outrageous comedy. This is a film made by people who love movies, acting as prospectors sifting through the detritus of modern filmmaking. Dream-like scenes of lead actor Scott Speedman skating a foot above the ground across the urban sprawl recall Renton’s journey to hospitalization in Trainspotting as much as Terry Gilliam’s magical realism.

Elsewhere, the preposterous idea of a medieval battle re-enactment society made up entirely of dwarves who travel around in a limousine, or Matt Frewer as a brain-damaged self-help leader strapped to a gurney and recovering from a giant icicle blow to the head recall John Landis at his most self-indulgent. Amazingly, in spite of all these outrageous conceits, the film somehow works thanks to excellent casting and performances, good pacing and the constant belief that all these incidents have a point and will make sense by the end of the movie.

The director hopes this likeable mélange about stoners and Satanists will garner a cult following and I for one am happy to sign up.

Alex Fitch

Read Alex Fitch’s interview with Allan Moyle.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

Nosferatu 1
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

Format: Blu-ray*

Release date: 23 November 2015

Distributor: BFI

Director: F.W. Murnau

Based on: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Original title: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

Cast: Max Schreck, Alexander Granach, Greta Schröder

Germany 1922

89 minutes

Hailed as a masterpiece of early German cinema and still regarded as one of the best horror films ever made, the 1922 classic Nosferatu has stood the test of time, despite a shaky start. Unable to secure the film rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, FW Murnau changed key aspects of the text in order to make his film. This subsequently led to the Stoker estate successfully suing the production company (Prana-Film) for copyright infringement, leaving them bankrupt. In spite of a court order for all copies of the film to be destroyed, worldwide distribution ensured copies would remain intact. Nosferatu has since influenced and inspired generations of filmmakers, spawning loving remakes and homages in the process.

Nosferatu stands independently from Dracula, yet the narrative structure is both true to the original and surprisingly complex. After cheerful businessman Hutter takes a seemingly innocent trip to the Carpathian Mountains to secure a real estate deal with the elusive Count Orlok, he falls ill, without ever suspecting that the cause might be the bite marks on his neck. Meanwhile Orlok embarks on a voyage across the sea to take up residence in Hutter’s town. The ship’s rat-infested cargo unleashes a plague upon the town, and though Hutter is reunited with his young wife Ellen, she realises she must succumb to the vampire in order to overpower him.

To consider Nosferatu simply as a key example of the German Expressionist style prominent in the early 1920s somewhat obscures Murnau’s leanings towards formal qualities, and his use of techniques heavily influenced by nineteenth-century gothic romantic paintings. Nosferatu‘s outdoor locations give a sense of realism, but camera tricks distort perceptions of time and space. Idyllic landscapes can quickly become fearsome, evoking the uncanny and obliterating boundaries between the real and unreal. Yet it is, perhaps, the expressionist elements that help make Nosferatu the iconic film that it is. Most striking is the now infamous image of the huge distorted shadow of the vampire; when he ascends the stairs to Ellen’s room his deformed figure calls to mind all incarnations of (childhood) fears, the terrifying ghosts and monsters which exist in the imagination.

Brought to life by Max Schreck, Count Orlok possesses an other-worldly presence not seen in cinema before or since. His features are grotesquely exaggerated: ears, nose and teeth protrude from a skeletal face, and his hands are claw-like as they delve at his prey: the bizarre physicality of Schreck’s performance complements the expressionist aesthetic of the film. Associated with rats and pestilence, Orlok is a world away from the charming and seductive Dracula depicted by Christopher Lee in the Hammer films. However, an undercurrent of perverse sexuality and desire runs through the film, and the predatory nature of the vampire is literally examined under a microscope by the scientists, as if it can be understood rationally. But this is to no avail.

Nosferatu was the first of many Dracula films, and its unique aesthetic reflects the level of innovation in the German film industry at that time. This definitive two-disc set is exquisitely restored, with painstaking resurrection of the original music and intertitles. With special features including a 96-page book and a making-of documentary, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.

This review refers to the 2007 Eureka Entertainment ‘Masters of Cinema’ DVD release.

Lindsay Tudor

* Special features of the newly remastered BFI Blu-ray release include a video essay by Christopher Frayling and the two short films Le Vampire by Jean Painlevé and The Mistletoe Bough by early film pioneer Percy Stow, which features a new score by Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs. The disc also includes a fully illustrated booklet featuring film credits, film notes by David Kalat and an essay on Albin Grau and Nosferatu’s occultist origins by Brian J Robb.


In Search of the Great Beast

Format: DVD

Release date: 10 September 2007

Distributor Classic Media

Director: Robert Garofalo

UK 2007

126 minutes

Every decade or so, when the stars are right and the aethers are correctly aligned, somebody announces a biopic of Aleister Crowley; Kenneth Anger, Ken Russell and more recently Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson spring readily to mind. The Edwardian adventurer, poet, painter, mystic and sexual athlete should make a fantastic subject, the multiple layers that wove through his life – magic and misery, art and arseholism, exoticism and exhibitionism – presenting aeons of richly layered, highly visual dramatic material from which to weave celluloid wizard’s robes.

That such a film has not yet been made remains something of a mystery, though Crowley’s spirit is present, albeit in caricatured form, in Night of the Demon‘s Carswell and The Devil Rides Out‘s Mocata, both films, it should be noted, of a certain age. Equally mysterious, especially given Old Crow’s penchant for self-promotion, is that no film footage of the man is known to exist. So there is none to be found in this ambitious DVD documentary, released on the 50th anniversary of its subject’s death.

Narrated by a throaty Joss Ackland, surely anybody’s choice to play the senior Beast, the DVD follows an unerringly straight and narrow biographical path for its two-hour running time. Despite some decent dramatised readings and reconstructions, its linear approach gives the feel of an illustrated biographical essay rather than a documentary film and, while information-rich, it lacks the tension required to bring this Beast to life, making getting through it in one sitting something of a challenge.

Content-wise, excluding some extremely minor factual discrepancies, the occasional instance of strange pronunciation and the odd random internet rumour thrown in for good measure, In Search of presents a solid overview of To Mega Therion’s life. But in breathlessly cramming in all the salacious details, it forgets ever to pause and wonder ‘why’? It’s not an easy question to answer, but in a world already seething with Crowleyana, any new addition to the pile might attempt to do so.

There are no surprises here. In Search of focuses primarily on Crowley’s deeds of darkness, presented in a Hammer horror monotone more suited to the era of John Symond’s 1952 biography, The Great Beast, than to the present day. The arch Goth visual design, all cracked facades and sepia tones, adds to the living storybook feel, while Rick Wakeman’s score flows over every available moment of screen time, adding a prerequisite sheen of melancholy and menace to an already well-polished surface. The presence of Wakeman, who once wore a cape and now, as a committed Christian, presumably prefers a cassock, personifies to a tee the film’s tone of prurient fascination.

The fifty years since his death have thrown up greater boogeymen than Crowley, and any new study ought to reflect the complexities of his personality and the turbulent times in which he lived. Although a decent biographical introduction for those who don’t want to read a book, In Search of sheds no new light on the man who succeeded so admirably as a magus and mythmaker, yet failed so miserably as a human being.

Mark Pilkington