Category Archives: film

Movie reviews. Genre commentary.

The Living Sun: Dispatching The Undead

Final title card of Nosferatu (1922)
Final title card of Nosferatu (1922)

The final scene of F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece NOSFERATU (1922), showing Count Orlok being destroyed by the rising sun, may very well be the first time in the history of the vampire — folkloric, literary, or cinematic — that any of the undead (at least in Western culture *) was dispatched by sunlight. His fading away and disappearance into a puff of smoke leads to the film’s final title card, where it is made it clear that “…the shadow of death was gone… as if obliterated by the triumphant rays of the living sun.”

No vampire before Count Orlok expired from exposure to the sun. Lord Ruthven. Varney the Vampire. Carmilla. Even Dracula himself could move about by day. So how did sunlight as a means of dispensing with vampires come to be? Why would NOSFERATU be the first?

The vampire of folklore — particularly during the wave of suspected vampires in Europe in the eighteenth century — always attacked at night. It, and its literary offspring, had to return to their coffins during the day. But death by ultraviolet light? Not part of the mythology. It was most certainly not started by Stoker. His Dracula may be exposed to the rising sun by novel’s end, but his demise is not due to sunlight. He is instead stabbed, and has his throat slit. So the most plausible answer as to why the makers of NOSFERATU introduced death by daylight may be as simple as this: they were looking for a way to clearly finish their film with a scene as far from the ending of the novel as as possible.

Count Orlok hovers over Ellen Hutter in Nosferatu (1922)
Count Orlok hovers over Ellen Hutter in Nosferatu (1922)

In order to avoid copyright infringement, scriptwriter Henrik Galeen (who later wrote THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE), and director Murnau, veiled their adaptation of Stoker. In their retelling, Count Orlok’s fate would be the direct result of a sacrifice made by the female lead. Ellen Hutter (their Mina Harker) reads from a book that her husband, Thomas (Jonathan Harker), had explicitly told her not to. She learns from it that in order to get rid of the Count, she has to keep him, um, occupied until the cock crows. In the end, it is beauty that kills the beast. Not a cadre of suitors with knives, as in Stoker’s novel.

Stoker’s widow, Florence, still sued, and all prints of the film were ordered to be destroyed (with the final ruling on the case happening in 1925). The filmmakers didn’t have a leg to stand on. Producer Albin Grau had previously applied for a license to film the novel, but had been refused by Florence. So he went ahead and made the film anyway. This was on record, and it lost them the case (i.e., they couldn’t feign ignorance). Fortunately, for film enthusiasts, it is believed that one copy survived, and duplicates were secretly made in the years that followed.

It is in those years that followed that we don’t know much of anything about how widely the film was seen, by whom, and what impression it had upon future filmmakers.

What we do know is that in the almost 20 years following NOSFERATU, no vampire films found their fiends reduced to ash in the morning sun. Not Lugosi’s Dracula (impaled off screen). Not Dreyer’s vampyr (run through with an iron rod). Not even Dracula’s daughter (felled by an arrow).

HERE COMES THE SON
Son of Dracula (1943)
Son of Dracula (1943)

Then comes SON OF DRACULA, Universal’s third movie to feature Dracula, released on November 5, 1943. Starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as the titular Count, SON OF DRACULA has the distinction of being not only the first vampire film to show the bat-to-man transformation of a vampire on-screen, AND the first to show a vampire turning to mist and back again, it is also the first to have a vampire die by exposure to the rays of the sun.

Though the screenplay is credited to Eric Taylor, SON OF DRACULA is from a story first conceived by Curt Siodmak — he of WOLF MAN fame (1941). In it, Dracula’s portly “son” (spoiler: it’s actually Dracula) goes by the name Alucard (which, with its simple reversal of letters, surprisingly seems to confuse the cast of characters until well into the film). He seduces a southern belle, and takes possesion of a Lousiana plantation before being exposed — figuratively as a vampire, and literally to the rising sun.

Just how much of the story is Curt Siodmak’s is unknown. His brother, Robert, who directed, hated the script, and reputedly fired his brother. Eric Taylor was ultimately credited with the screenplay, and Siodmak with the story. So who actually came up with the idea to have the Alucard killed by the sun?

Evidence would suggest it was Siodmak’s. After all, Siodmak was adept at dreaming up supernatural lore where none eisted before; it was he who introduced much of the werewolf lore we accept as canon today. More importantly, Siodmak grew up in Germany, and was active in the arts. He could very well have seen NOSFERATU when it premiered in March of 1922.

Born Kurt Siodmak in Dresden, in 1902, Curt worked an engineer early in his career, having had a doctorate in mathematics. But his interests, it seemed, were in the arts. He wrote novels, and used his connections in artistic circles to become involved in German cinema of the nineteen twenties. First, he and his wife-to-be Henrietta de Perrot signed on as extras in Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1926). He wrote a number of screenplays in 1929, and even invested royalties from his early novels in the 1930 movie MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG, directed by his brother. His 1931 novel F.P.1 Antwortet Nicht was adapted to film in 1932 (starring Peter Lorre). The list goes on.

Would it be too much of a stretch, then, to believe Siodmak — whose social circles would have included filmmakers — was quite familiar with Murnau’s NOSFERATU? Seeing the vampire killed by sunlight, Siodmak could have taken that idea and banked it for a future where it just might come in handy.

In 1937, Siodmak emigrated to the U.S. for fear of the growing tide of anti-semitism in his homeland. In 1941, he was given his big break in Hollywood, penning the screenplay for THE WOLF MAN. He would go on after SON OF DRACULA to write the screenplay for HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), where Dracula (this time played by John Carradine) also dies in sunlight.

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE

Of course, like most Hollywood stories, this one has a twist. Seven years after its German release and subsequent destruction courtesy of Florence Stoker’s lawsuit, a surviving / duplicated print of NOSFERATU was shown to American audiences on June 3, 1929.

Return of the Vampire (1943)
Return of the Vampire (1943)

It is quite possible that a veteran screenwriter named Randall Faye or the younger Griffin Jay (who would go on to write a handful of horror movies, including THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940) and THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942)) were in the audience for that showing of NOSFERATU. Both are credited with writing THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE. In that film, released November 11, 1943, Bela Lugosi’s Armand Tesla is destroyed when a bomb strikes a cemetery, and the rays of the rising sun reduce the vampire to bones.

Armand Tesla Melts in the sun (from Return of the Vampire)
Armand Tesla Melts in the sun (from Return of the Vampire)

That SON OF DRACULA and RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE were released only six days apart casts some doubt as to whether Siodmak was the first to ressurect the idea of dispatching the undead with the light of the morning sun. Perhaps Faye or Jaye can be given the credit.

Not knowing whose idea came first, it’s difficult to determine whether it was Alucard or Tesla who was the first of Hollywood vampires to get crispy by light of day. We might never know.

Christopher Lee's Dracula done in by sunlight at the end of HOROR OF DRACULA (1958)
Christopher Lee’s Dracula done in by sunlight at the end of HOROR OF DRACULA (1958)

But what we’re left with in the seventy-five plus years since is a legacy of vampires who die by rays of the sun. From the dramatic death of the Count in Hammer‘s HORROR OF DRACULA, to Anne Rice’s literary dandies, to the ravenous monsters of FROM DUSK TIL DAWN (who actually explode), death by daylight is now permanently part of vampire lore.

You can watch NOSFERATU in full HD quality below.

* There are stories of the Jiangshi from the Qing dynasty in China where this pseudo-vampire / zombie withdraws when the cock crows, but it’s not clear whether sunlight kills them. I suppose one could argue that sunlight didn’t kill Count Orlok either, and that the cock crow at dawn just made him turn to a mist and go away. To live to drink another day.

Solitary and Abhorred: Vincent Price as The Last Man on Earth

Last Man on Earth, British Quad Poster
Last Man on Earth, British Quad Poster

Richard Matheson’s seminal post-apocalyptic vampire novel I AM LEGEND (1954) has been adapted into film three times * — most closely as “Last Man on Earth,” an English-language Italian production starring Vincent Price from 1964. Based on the book — with Matheson writing a first draft that was later abandoned — “Last Man on Earth” is often overshadowed by 1971’s “The Omega Man,” starring Charlton Heston, or 2007’s CGI-heavy “I am Legend,” starring Will Smith. Yet the 1964 film, despite its immediately apparent (incredibly) low-budget, is certainly the most faithful to the spirit of the novel. And it has as its star the always brilliant Vincent Price. Here, he is at his most melancholic. But he is no Robinson Crusoe, stranded on an island. Instead, he IS the island, stuck in a sea of desolation.

GRIEF AND DEPRESSION

While the book, and each adaptation, explore the isolation of the main character, only Matheson’s novel and “Last Man on Earth” spend considerable time on grief and depression.

“Another day to get through,” is the voiceover that opens the film. “Better get started,” Price adds, as if another intolerable day holds no meaning beyond survival.

It’s a tone that is repeated over and over again throughout the film. This is not the confident swagger of Charlton Heston in “Omega Man,” or the dedicated scientific curiosity and concern that is Will Smith’s turn. Clearly, Price is neither the last bastion of mankind’s art and culture (Heston) or its self-appointed savior (Smith). He has lost family, friends, and a purpose. He is a man with little hope for the future, spending his waking hours looking for survivors, and killing vampires.

MONOTONY AND MEMORIES

That these others are vampires is almost immaterial. Sure, they are repulsed by garlic, can’t stand mirrors, and are easily dispensed with a stake to the heart, but Price’s character never seems to think of them as monsters. He is more sympathetic to their situation. And the horror clearly comes from his memories of what was. Of what these people once were. His family, and friends. The horror of isolation. The horror of of remembering how things used to be.

While not part of the voiceover, one line from the novel could well be the theme of the entire movie.

“In a world of monotonous horror
there could be no salvation in wild dreaming.”

Memories and daydreams bring no peace. Even the temporary elation of finding a dog for a companion eventually leads to despair. Even the dog is infected. It must be put down.

THE TRUE MONSTER

SPOILER: in the novel, it is made clear by the final chapter that in a world populated by vampires, the vampire-killer becomes the monster. Neville / Morgan is feared as the man who brings death while the rest of the world sleeps. It’s only with the main character’s execution that the world rid itself of the true monster and move on.

“Last Man” and “Omega Man” both find their Morgan / Neville characters killed before the movies’ closing credts (both ultimately dispatched by spears in scenes of obvious Christ symbolism]). The plot of “Omega Man,” however, makes clear in its world of survivors, that “civilized” man’s art, culture, and, particularly, its science, are to blame for the plague. The survivors rally around a charismatic leader who refers to his “Family” — a none too subtle reference to Charles Manson (who, himself, had prophesized a (race) war).

In “Omega Man,” the fall of mankind is tied to biochemical warfare. And it raises the question of man’s hubris with waging wars that no one can win. But there is no doubt about it; Heston is the hero. Not the monster.

Similarly, Will Smith’s Neville is heroic, although a little misguided. The monsters exist because of a cure for cancer gone wrong. He experiments on them in an effort to return their humanity. It raises the question of man’s hubris with altering nature. Its subtext — and theatrical ending — become matters of bio-ethics. Smith lives, and there’s hope by the film’s end.

Price’s death, however, is the closest to the spirit of the novel where Neville is outright executed. Morgan is killed simply because he exists. It doesn’t matter what caused the plague. There are no politics. He’s just in the way of the future.

SOLITARY AND ABHORRED

“Last Man on Earth” has absolutely no pretensions to condemn mankind (or a single man) for hubris. Instead, it focuses on the psychology of the individual who craves human contact.

In that respect, Neville / Morgan is much like another misunderstood creature: The Frankenstein monster. Its an inversion of sorts, where one creature finds itself shunned by mankind, and one by its replacement.

Price could very well have added voiceover taken directly from Shelley’s novel, and it would not sound out of place:

“Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

LEGACY

“Last Man on Earth” did not get particularly good reviews upon its release, but has since enjoyed relatively good reception as more and more people discover it. It currently holds an 80% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Its detractors, however, point out the slow pace and the low budget. Decide for yourself. You can watch it in its entirety on YouTube.

Four years after its release, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” changed the horror movie landscape. And in a 2008 DVD release of the film, Romero made it clear that “I had written a short story, which I basically had ripped off from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend.” It is not too much of a stretch to think that the Vincent Price film may have influenced him, too, especially with its relentless horde of zombie-like creatures pounding on the walls and doors of a house — in deliciously stark black and white!

Whatever its legacy, “Last Man on Earth” is memorable if only for Price’s performance. As with most films in which he starred, he steals the show, and it is haunting just to hear him lament his circumstances: the monotony, and the horror of it all.

Note: I realize that the novel has technically been adapted four times, with the fourth being 2007’s “I am Omega,” released at the same time of the Will Smith movie. Such films are often referred to as “mock-busters” — b-movies meant to capitalize on larger mainstream releases. I haven’t seen it, and, frankly, don’t intend to!