Santa Barbara plays host to ‘Nosferatu’

Last night the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, along with Southern California Edison and the Santa Barbara Theater Organ Society, presented its third-annual pre-Halloween program dedicated to the screening of a silent classic with live music accompaniment. The night’s offering: F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.”

The program launched in 2009 with “The Phantom of the Opera” and continued last year with “The Black Pirate.” And judging by the big turnout at the Arlington Theatre yesterday, it’s as popular as ever. The film was preceded by the somewhat Halloween-themed Laurel and Hardy short, “Habeas Corpus.”

There was a bit of a last-minute scare, though, as the scheduled organist was stranded back east due to the severe weather that popped up over the weekend. A savior swooped in at the last second as Santa Barbara festival director Roger Durling and company got in touch with a Burbank-based organist who, after playing his third-straight mass that morning, was happy to change it up with a silent horror film and a slapstick short.

You really have to experience live music accompaniment with a film like this at least once. I’m fortunate to have been able to have that kind of experience both in film school and at this or that event over the years, and it just adds so much texture. (Plus, this guy had to improvise his way through “Habeas Corpus.” But it didn’t really show.)

Santa Barbara, it turns out, holds a unique, if unfortunate, piece of history with Murnau. The great German director died in a car crash in the city on March 11, 1931 on what was then highway 1 but is now the busy 101 freeway. He produced better films than “Nosferatu” in his time, 1926’s “Faust” and the 1927 masterpiece “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” chief among them, but he’ll always be known for the haunting specter of Dracula he gave us in 1922.

Of course, he couldn’t call the film “Dracula.” He didn’t bother to get the rights to Bram Stoker’s horror novel when he set out to adapt it. “Vampire” was changed to “Nosferatu” and “Count Dracula” was change to “Count Orlock.” Upon release, Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement. This bankrupted Prana Film, making “Nosferatu” it’s first and last production.

All prints of the film were thought to have been destroyed as a result of the lawsuit. So we’re very fortunate that one copy had already been distributed around the world and that therefore bootlegs survived and found their way through the years so the film could be studied and appreciated for the hallmark of German Expressionism that it is.

Werner Herzog remade the film in 1979 as “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” with Klaus Kinski in the titular role. That’s a film I absolutely adore, with it’s visual homages and, in many instances, direct recreations (the ominous ship coming into harbor leaps to mind).

The making of Murnau’s film was dramatized (to say the least) in 2000 with E. Elias Merhige’s “Shadow of the Vampire.” It was nominated for Best Makeup at the Academy Awards, as well as Best Supporting Actor, for Willem Dafoe, who portrayed actor Max Schreck (the gangly star of “Nosferatu”). John Malkovich portrayed Murnau. I can’t believe it’s been 11 years since that film; I haven’t seen it since release.

Another bit of trivia, if you weren’t aware: Tim Burton named Christopher Walken’s character in “Batman Returns,” Max Shreck (no “c”), as an homage to the film and star.

Anyway, a great, festive time at the movies. Any similar Halloween experiences from over the years you want to share?