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'Nosferatu,' the Original Vampire Flick, to Provide Old School Haunting

By Patty Wetli | October 22, 2013 10:46am
 Chicago's Silent Film Society will present a screening of "Nosferatu" Oct. 23 at Schurz High School.
"Nosferatu" Screening at Schurz
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IRVING PARK — Before there was "Twilight" there was "Nosferatu."

The original vampire movie, directed by F. W. Murnau and released in 1922, receives a preHalloween showing at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at Schurz High School's Slocum Hall, 3601 N. Milwaukee Ave.

"It was a trailblazer, so to speak," said Dennis Wolkowicz of the Silent Film Society of Chicago. "It doesn't compare with today's special effects, but it still has a lot of punch."

He compared the movie, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," to later works by Rod Sterling and Alfred Hitchcock, which traded in suspense rather than violence.

"It's more, 'What happened behind that door?'" said Wolkowicz. "That can be just as effective as blood and gore."

In a 1997 review of the film, critic Roger Ebert wrote: "It doesn’t scare us, but it haunts us. It shows not that vampires can jump out of shadows, but that evil can grow there, nourished on death. In a sense, Murnau's film is about all of the things we worry about at 3 in the morning — cancer, war, disease, madness."

That this evil occurs in silence makes "Nosferatu" all the more effective, Ebert added.

"It means that the characters are confronted with alarming images and denied the freedom to talk them away. There is no repartee in nightmares. Human speech dissipates the shadows and makes a room seem normal. Those things that live only at night do not need to talk, for their victims are asleep, waiting."

Of course, as Wolkowicz noted, silent films may be speechless but they're not soundless — they're accompanied by music. That's one of the reasons Schurz was chosen for the "Nosferatu" screening.

The school's restored 2,000-seat Slocum Hall is home to the "Mighty Moller" pipe organ, a gift from students to Schurz in 1935. The organ's 2,934 individual pipes range in size from 16 feet high to the size of a pencil.

Performing under the name of Jay Warren, Wolkowicz also happens to be the organist who accompanies many of the Silent Film Society's screenings.

"It has a lot of wonderful voices," Wolkowicz said of the Moller. "Without sounding corny, it's like an artist working with a palette of musical color."

Most silent films were released with either a complete score composed specifically for the movie or with a "cue sheet" for different points in the film.

"It would say, 'Door slams, lady screams, play this,'" Wolkowicz explained.

The film's original score, intended to be performed by an orchestra, was lost.

In its absence, Wolkowicz has compiled his own, composing themes for the film's main characters and drawing on a trove of silent film stock music.

"Their titles are things like 'Burglar Music,'" he said.

A purist, Wolkowicz is adamantly opposed to the trend of setting silent films to jazz, rock or avant garde music.

"It's not intended for these films," he said. "Silent films are our cinematic roots. This is part of American history, but the music is just being ignored. We want to keep those two together."

As more and more universities eliminate the organ from their music programs, Wolkowicz worries that his brand of silent film accompaniment could fall by the wayside.

"The organ is an oddball instrument by today's standards," most often associated with roller rinks and funeral homes, he said.

So, he was cheered this summer to receive separate visits from a pair of fans who were enamored with his organ playing as children.

"They both have high-profile organ positions in churches. One went to Yale," Wolkowicz said. "They both came back and said, "It all started with you.'"

Reduced-price advance tickets for "Nosferatu" are $9 for students and seniors and can be purchased at PC Here, 4055 N. Milwaukee Ave., or City Newsstand, 4018 N. Cicero. Regular-priced advance tickets are $10 and can be ordered online. Tickets at the door are $12.