Under Evil's Shadowy Influence: A Cinematic Romance

         As a global society, we have always kept up a morbid fascination with the supernatural, the ID, that which frightens and terrifies us. We cannot help but look into the abyss with something akin to longing, intrigue, excitement, and desire. It is therefore inevitable that cinema, as an art form of self-expression, would serve as a medium for satisfying our obsessive need to feel scared and revel in our darker selves. I believe that the horror genre, with all of its erotic, psychological, and adrenaline-soaked thrills was born in the Expressionistic movement of the cinema. Particularly, I believe that society's romance with the horror genre began with two films in particular--The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed in 1920 by Robert Weine, and Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors, directed in 1922 by F.W. Murnau.

         While Caligari addressed the horrors issuing from within men themselves, Nosferatu addressed those whose origins are beyond the knowledge or power of men. Both kinds equally hypnotize the audience in their insatiable curiosity, and both films forever left their mark on film makers and viewers in many subsequent horror-junkie generations. Since they were the relative firsts of their kind, it comes as no surprise that their influence would burn itself into the psyches of those who watched them. This is evidenced in the direct borrowing of thematic content and visual inspiration from these films, which is then fed into new productions and interpretations of the same basic horror movie formula.

         The earliest For example, take three of the most impressive scenes and the techniques used therein from Nosferatu: the scenes in which Count Orlock (Max Schrecht) rises from his coffin into perfect standing position in a feat of superhuman strength, the scene in which Orlock's shadow stalks Mina (Greta Schroeder) through her house and into her bedroom, and the stop motion filming used to show Orlock's unnatural speed and strength. The charm and unique vision of these scenes and techniques have worked their way into hundreds of films since their original premier--have technically been plagiarized--and have planted the seed from which grew the tree of the horror genre, nourished by popularity and demand. In almost every reincarnation of the Dracula film, the count has risen from his coffin like a two by four, unnatural and powerful. His silhouette is filmed and seen as even more menacing than his physical presence. Francis Ford Coppola's 1922 Dracula improved upon the use of the vampire's shadow as a physical presence when the director showed it leaving a trail of blood as it retreats from the scene of its crime. Vlad, here too, springs from his coffin like a punch dummy. Even in films only loosely based in the vampire myth, inspiration is taken from this film.

         In the 1922 film Ravenous, directed by Antonia Bird, the villain Colonel Ives makes an hommage to every other villain who will not stay down, and particularly to Orlock, when he rises stiffly after being shot square in the chest. This film happens to be about cannibalism and the Native American Wendigo legend. In the 2006 television series Blood Ties on the Lifetime channel, stop motion is used in filming the series' supernatural characters in order to exhibit their superhuman strength and prowess. In regards to Caligari's influence on modern cinema, one needs look no further than Tim Burton to see the reverberations.

         In Edward Scissor Hands (1990), The Nightmare before Christmas (1993), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and Sweeney Todd (2007) we see inspiration from the characters and set design repeated over and over and over again, obsessively. When an audience sees Johnny Depp with dark circles under his eyes and wild hair, thin and donned all in black, they recognize Burton. When they see the angular black and white and striped set designs they see Burton; yet, they are really recognizing and seeing Caligari. I can think of no two earlier films that might have spawned this cultish following or parented the horror genre other than these.

        The cinematic history of the horror genre is rich and very diverse, but I believe that these movies single-handedly paved the way for everything that has proceeded since, due to the receptivity of their audience and the mastery with which their directors filmed them. They set the stage in film for our already burning love affair with horror in literature. There may not exist anything, any new idea or concept, under the sun; but the genre and religious obsession of the horror film rests under the shadow of the vampire and the thin, pale madman locked in his cabinet.

Kathleen Burnham

Table of Contents