Historical accounts differ about the first appearance of a vampire in cinema. Some say it was 1920 Russian film titled “Dracula,” though no copies are known to exist, and others credit a lost Hungarian feature from 1921 known as “Dracula’s Death.”
But there’s no argument that the first truly significant cinematic vampire was Count Orlok, the skeleton-thin, ratlike creature from German director F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent classic “Nosferatu.”
On Halloween night, you can see a screening of the legendary film accompanied by a live score courtesy of the Spokane Symphony and conductor Morihiko Nakahara. Pianist Rick Friend, who composed this particular score, will also be performing with the symphony.
Friend, based in Saskatchewan, began taking piano lessons when he was 5, and his affection for silent cinema emerged around the same time. He recalls watching an abridged copy of Buster Keaton’s 1926 Civil War comedy “The General” on 16 mm and improvising his own piano music over the film.
“I was always interested in listening to the music that was behind the movies I was watching,” Friend said. “It fit like a glove.”
Friend has since accompanied many silent features as a live pianist and has written his own scores for such films as “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) and “The Mark of Zorro” (1920).
“I feel like I’m part of the movie when I’m playing,” Friend said. “It’s like you’re in a dream.”
When he’s deciding which films he’s going to score, Friend said he looks for something that inspires an elemental response in him.
“It’s the impression I’m getting or the emotional drive,” he said. “There’s nothing intellectual I’m looking for. If something moves me, I want to write for it.”
Those parameters certainly applied to “Nosferatu,” which, despite being 93 years old, still features some potent horror imagery.
“It’s creepy in a very effective and very subtle way,” Friend said. “It gets under your skin. I didn’t even get it the first time I saw it.”
“Nosferatu” is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” and it follows the basic beats of the famous novel’s plot without ever using words like “vampire” or, well, “Dracula.”
As the film opens, a miserly real estate agent sends one of his employees, a young idealist named Hutter, to Transylvania to meet a man who is buying an abandoned house in their town. Hutter’s trek through the Carpathian Mountains is relatively uneventful, until he stops at an inn and the lodgers seem to cower when they learn Hutter is visiting the strange Count Orlok.
Max Schreck memorably plays Orlok, the film’s Dracula surrogate. He’s a mysterious figure who dwells in a drafty, shadowy castle atop a hill, creeping through the night and sucking the blood of his sleeping visitors. Before Hutter can fully assess what’s happening, Orlok has made it to Germany, where he sets his sights on Hutter’s wife, Ellen, and her supple neck.
“Nosferatu” was a critical and commercial success upon its release, which led Stoker’s estate to successfully sue for copyright infringement. The lawsuit forced the film’s distributor, Prana Film, into bankruptcy, and the studio never released another movie. All copies of “Nosferatu” were to be destroyed, but at least one print survived, and the film would go on to become a watershed of German expressionism and a major influence on the horror genre.
Murnau had a successful post-“Nosferatu” career, helming acclaimed films like “The Last Laugh” and “Sunrise,” both generally considered two of the best features of the silent era. He worked steadily until 1931, when he died from injuries sustained in a car accident at the height of his popularity.
“Murnau would produce one gem after another,” Friend said. “He was blatantly poetic in everything he did, but the poetry in ‘Nosferatu’ is different. It’s a subtle poetry.”
The original score for “Nosferatu” has been lost, so the accompanying music varies with release (the film itself is in the public domain, so many different versions of varying quality exist). Friend said he took great care in evoking the mood of the film when writing his own “Nosferatu” score.
“There’s a bit of French impressionism, some flat-out dissonant music in there,” he said. “When (Orlok) is slithering over toward the main character, I have to feel exactly what the main character is feeling.”
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