Thursday, January 13, 2011

Movie Music Musings: Nosferatu (1922)

On Halloween night my wife and I decided to watch a few creepy movies. On the list was the silent classic from 1922 “Nosferatu”. I had seen the movie quite a while ago (when I was watching all the movies that influenced Coppola’s version of “Dracula”), and I remembered finding it creepy but a bit on the slow side.

We ended up using a direct download via Netflix. The only reason I mention this is because there was no way to change the audio track. Since this is a silent film, each version on DVD has a different musical score. A quick check on Amazon leads me to believe that I watched the version of the movie that Image released. Supposedly it has a score performed on pipe organ. I wish I had seen that version.

Instead we heard the other track, an “experimental” score performed on a synthesizer. Now I have nothing against electronic music. I even enjoy film scores with completely synthetic scores (Vangelis and Wendy Carlos have done some great stuff in my opinion). But the big difference here is that electronic scores are still film scores. Their first goal is to support the film and enhance the story telling. This alternate musical score did the exact opposite.

“Nosferatu” has some issues that it can’t overcome. The first is that the acting is very stylized and over the top. It also has some pacing problems, taking its sweet time moving the story along. All these things are actually enhanced by the poor score.

What makes it so poor? The biggest offender is the use of some seriously distracting sound choices. During scenes of pastoral beauty and when Hutter (the protagonist) is wandering around blissfully ignorant of his danger, the music is incredibly bubbly and upbeat. A steel drum sound effect is used in many scenes, making me wonder when this little German man wandered into Jamaica. It was so incongruous I had to laugh, not the kind of response you want when you’re building tension. But that was just it, there was no tension.

In early scenes as Hutter approaches Count Orlok’s castle, the music attempts a sinister turn, but instead it just kind of meanders around, not creating dread or suspense. It just flails about in the most distracting manner. Now, I’ve heard some excellent suspense music done in an electronic way. Check out Kenji Kawai’s score for “Ghost in the Shell”, which uses a creepy meandering, atonal drones and rumbling to create a building of danger and suspense. It’s still musical, but in a very Japanese way, and very effective in the scenes of the film (even if it isn’t something very listenable on an album). Something like that could have worked wonders in “Nosferatu” but instead what you get is something that would sound pathetic in an 8 bit Nintendo game.

My wife had never seen the film before and quickly lost interest because of the distracting score. We started coming up with other instruments that would have worked better. A simple string quartet could have really worked wonders here.

Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, I grabbed my iPod dock hooked it up, and played the wonderful musical scores to “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “The Ninth Gate” by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. Sure the music didn’t match the scenes, but the tone was right, with Kilar’s utilizing his orchestra and lush writing to create beauty and horror in equal amounts. It was a vast improvement, and actually allowed us to watch the rest of the film and actually be creeped out by the visuals.

This hammered home the importance of music in film. It’s such a powerful tool, and a director must really be aware of how to use it. As this little experiment proved the music for films serves one purpose first – to support its film. I sometimes forget as a lover of film music that scores that I may not enjoy may work wonders in their film.

Still I feel a bit cheated by that version of “Nosferatu”, maybe I should pick up a version on DVD with an actual workable score and watch this again. I tried to imagine what would happen if someone did s similar treatment to The Adventures of Prince Achmed and shuddered at the thought of synth steel drums during the wizard battle. “Experimental”? No.

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