Monday, 20 March 2017

Swanvale Halt Film Club: Three Old Horrors: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), The Haunting (1963)

No undiscovered gems this time: these three movies are pretty well known to most people interested in film generally and the Gothic strain within it in particular. 

Of the two creaky silents, we found Caligari (which neither of us had seen before) the rather superior of the two, despite its very deliberate weirdness: so much so that I wondered whether the version of Nosferatu we were watching was some unrestored print. The scene-changing is so choppy it borders on the inept. Although Caligari is determined to be odd and non-realistic, Nosferatu has an awful lot of irrelevance packed in: given the lack of time available to tell the story (such as it is) you have to ask why FW Murnau wasted so much footage showing us Dr Van Helsing playing with carnivorous polyps with his students, Harker making his way ponderously home across streams and slopes, and Nina mooning about the Westernras' house or the beach waiting for him. The action jerks restlessly from shot to shot in a way which is possibly intended to escalate tension and urgency but without a decent score to help, it doesn't work. Music can make or break a silent film, and while the score for the verison of Caligari we saw was excellent, the Nosferatu music was clunkingly inappropriate and at times veered in the direction of 'Charlie Chaplin meets the Vampires'. There are some great shots, however: I like the view Nina sees from her window of a procession of coffins being carried along the street as the vampiric plague ravages Bremen. In Caligari, the sequence of Cesare the somnambulist advancing from a window towards the sleeping Jane is still creepy after nearly a century, and you can see how it feeds into subsequent horror cinema. 

Naturally the more modern The Haunting is a different matter. I've seen this umpteen times before and always enjoy it, while it was new to Ms Formerly Aldgate. Some of the acting is a bit stilted, but the whole thing is so stylish and reticent - you never see anything particularly horrific and the worst manifestations that befall the protagonists are knockings and turning doorknobs - that any small defects are completely overcome. I hadn't realised quite how sophisticated the camerawork is, constantly exciting and unusual without being distracting from what's going on. Not a masterpiece, perhaps, but endlessly entertaining and properly eerie.


  1. I suppose you must have seen the 1961 film The Innocents, but if by any chance you haven't, I urge you to. It is a wonderful film, and quite in the vein of The Haunting, which I adore as well. I also found Werner Herzog's 1979 remake of Nosferatu a worthy effort. Caligari I haven't seen, but I am intrigued and will check it out.

  2. How good to hear from you! As you hadn't visited the Other Place we both frequent for a while I was going to ask how you are. I haven't seen The Innocents, actually, so I will definitely do so. Thank you.

  3. Well, the Other Place isn't very active most days, is it? I have my bouts of activity when something triggers me though... I am very well and hope you are too. Enjoy The Innocents!

  4. That is true: we should both have been around 5-6 years ago, I suppose. I'm glad you're OK at the moment!