Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Thursday, Oct. 13: Notes on scoring 'Nosferatu'

You know Halloween is just around the corner when 'Nosferatu' shows up on the calendar of your local theater. And that's the case at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in downtown Plymouth, N.H., where we're running F.W. Murnau's creepy adaptation of the 'Dracula' tale on Thursday, Oct. 13 at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $10 per person.

'Nosferatu' is a terrific silent film for music, I think. As a drama, it's easier to score (for me) than a comedy, which requires constant precision timing for the music to augment the laughs while not overwhelming them. But with a drama, and especially an eerie one such as 'Nosferatu,' there's a lot more freedom for music to build atmosphere and tension and whatever else helps bring the film to life for contemporary audiences.

I first did music for 'Nosferatu' by accident. Four years ago, I was booked to do music for a screening of 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,' another landmark of German expressionism. However, on screening day, problems arose with 'Cabinet' and we had to substitute 'Nosferatu' at the last minute. I hadn't prepared anything for this film, but it was one of those times when everything fell together just right. Sometimes it happens! I think one of the reasons was the visual appearance of actor Max Schreck, whom I understand Murnau selected specifically because of his appearance. Something in what Schreck looks like makes creepy music just flow naturally.

For Thursday's screening, I have a few ideas in mind for what I might do, including a helpful forboding chord sequence that I invented for other 'Nosferatu' screenings, and an arpegiatted version of the Dies Irae from the Catholic Death Mass should prove handy. Not sure how much time I'll have to tweak any of the synthesizer settings ahead of showtime, but I'll try to keep remembering how less can be more. It's especially important not to get too creepy too soon, but to let it build naturally during the first half-hour, until we get to Nosferatu's castle.

Because 'Nosferatu' is often tackled by groups who don't do silent film music on a regular basis, the film is occasionally burdened with an ineffective or insensitive score: too loud, too much, too soon, smothering the film under a tsnami of sound. People who do that forget that the music is supposed to support the film, not overwhelm it. I attended a 'Nosferatu' screening about 10 years ago that featured music by a local rock band, and what they played was so loud that it literally made my ears hurt. I don't know about you, but that's not my recipe for effective accompaniment.

Well, that's a taste of what to expect at 'Nosferatu.' Hope you can make it! Below is the text of the press release that went out last month.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film frightfest at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Oct. 13

'Nosferatu' (1922), pioneer classic horror flick, to be screened with live music in Plymouth, N.H.

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—Get into the Halloween spirit with a classic silent horror film! 'Nosferatu' (1922), the original screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula,' will be screened with live music at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. on Thursday, Oct. 13. The show, which starts at 6:30 p.m., will feature live accompaniment by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $10 per person.

'Nosferatu' (1922), directed by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, remains a landmark work of the cinematic horror genre. It was among the first movies to use visual design to contribute to an overall sense of terror. To modern viewers, the passage of time has made both this unusual film seem even more strange and otherworldly. It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will try to enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screenings.

In 'Nosferatu,' German actor Max Schreck portrays the title character, a mysterious count from Transylvania who travels to the German city of Bremen to take up residence. A rise in deaths from the plague is attributed to the count's arrival. Only when a young woman reads "The Book of Vampires" does it become clear how to rid the town of this frightening menace.

Modern critics say the original 'Nosferatu' still packs a powerful cinematic punch. “Early film version of Dracula is brilliantly eerie, full of imaginative touches that none of the later films quite recaptured,” reviewer Leonard Maltin wrote recently. Critic Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader called 'Nosferatu' "...a masterpiece of the German silent cinema and easily the most effective version of Dracula on record.”

The film, shot in 1921 and released in 1922, was an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel, with names and other details changed because the studio could not obtain rights to the novel. For instance, "vampire" became "Nosferatu" and "Count Dracula" became "Count Orlok." After the film was released, Stoker's widow filed a copyright infringement lawsuit and won; all known prints and negatives were destroyed under the terms of settlement. However, bootleg copies of the the film would surface later, allowing 'Nosferatu' to be screened today as audiences originally saw it.

The Dracula tale would be remade many times, including a famous version in 1931 starring Bela Lugosi in the title role. The character of Dracula would go on to become a staple of cinematic horror, appearing in more than 200 commercial feature films to date—second only to fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

All movies in the Flying Monkey's silent film series were popular when first seen by audiences in the 1920s, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen at their best. They were not made to be shown on television; to revive them, organizers aim to show the films at the Flying Monkey as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and before a live audience.

‘Nosferatu’ will be shown on Thursday, Oct. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performing Arts Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Upcoming films in the Flying Monkey's silent film series include:

• Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, 6:30 p.m.: "The Big Parade" (1925) starring John Gilbert, Renee Adoree; The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; http://www.flyingmonkeynh.com/. Director King Vidor broke new cinematic ground with this epic drama that took viewers right into the trenches and showed the ugly side of then-recent World War I. Screened in honor of Veterans Day. Admission $10 per person.

• Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, 6:30 p.m.: "When The Clouds Roll By" (1919), starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr.; The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; http://www.flyingmonkeynh.com/. Fairbanks tangles with a twisted psychiatrist in this unusual romantic comedy. Will love win out? Find out in this contemporary (for 1919) tale, made just prior to Fairbanks launching his series of swashbuckling historical adventures. Admission, $10 per person.

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For more info, contact:
Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com
Images attached.
More high-resolution digital images available upon request.

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