old it's new again
a not-so-bad October night in Portland a couple hundred folks
of varying comport gathered at the Guild Theater to travel back
in time for an oddly modern treat. The event was a one-evening-only
screening of FW Murnau's 1922 classic, "Nosferatu,"
with an original score performed by Boston's appropriately named
Devil Music Ensemble.
count: The story of the original cinematic vampire.
It's hard to explain how an 83-year-old movie accompanied
by an antiquated method of cinematic sound delivery could be so
thrilling. But on this night, memories of whatever ridiculous
pleasures one may have garnered from "Revenge of the Sith"
or "War of the Worlds" were completely washed clean
by something so old it was new again.
"Nosferatu" tells the story of the original
cinematic vampire, Count Orlock, in the sympathetic style of German
The concept is simple: a crazy old firebrand real-estate
agent, Knock, realizes there's scads of money to be had by selling
the mysterious count a desolate house in his own neighborhood.
Though the NIMBY aesthetic had already been in play since time
immemorial, a pile of ducats proves lure enough to bring the cadaverous
count, whom death follows like an old friend, in amongst the fold.
Though some of the acting and a few of the scenes
had the audience inappropriately laughing (Ill admit shots
of Nosferatu hotfooting it through deserted German streets with
his coffin under his arm a malevolent minstrel with a violin
case of Doom were unintentionally comical), Murnau amply
demonstrates the old-fashioned skills of the terror monger. Shadowy
shots of the simply uncanny long shadows, the rat-like
titular character and a fully shrouded horse-drawn carriage stood
skills: delivering at all the right moments.
The Devil Music Ensemble knew what to do to sell
this movie to a modern audience, while paying apt homage to its
classical motifs. The ensemble was composed of Brendon Wood on
electric and lap steel guitar, banjo, accordion and synthesizer;
Jonah Rapino on electric violin and vibraphone; and Tim Nylander
on drums and percussion. The instrumentation for the most part
was of relatively modern origin, but the compositions straddled
the line nicely, conjuring a type of Balkan classical music with
psychedelic rock leanings.
As one might think, the silent-film proceedings
needed a lift to keep jaded viewers engaged; the title cards were
propelled with a driving beat and loop-centric violin charts.
The volume was a few notches below rock-concert level but for
the most part served its purpose spectacularly. The ensemble even
resorted on occasion to a current trope of horror-movie soundtracks,
delivering chest-thumping jolts of high anxiety at all the right
All performers stood out at one point or another.
Rapino switched from possessed violin flailing to ominous vibraphone
figures with ease, relying on a harmonica-holder-styled contraption
to keep his violin always below his chin even as he pounded
with his mallets. When not urging the pace on with his trap kit,
Nylander created truly eerie effects by bowing his cymbals, a
trick I'd never seen (and probably never heard) before. Finally,
Wood proved a master of twisting Fender reverb to ominous ends,
frequently synching up with Rapino's violin figures for compelling
motifs that brilliantly directed emotions.
experience: reinvigorating Murnau's moody masterpiece.
The Devil Music Ensemble's original score, excellent
performance and canny manipulation of contemporary sounds and
effects reinvigorated Murnau's moody masterpiece, creating a singular
experience that was as educational as it was exhilarating. The
NW Film Studies Center is to be congratulated for coordinating
this night of magic.
The Devil Music Ensemble rightfully earned a sustained
round of applause that hopefully eased the pain of its van breakdown
in Los Banos, Calif., just prior to the Portland show.