A ship’s crew has been struck by a mysterious illness and only the captain and the first mate remain alive. The first mate suspects the illness is somehow related to a coffin being transported below deck. Just before sunset, he heads below with a hatchet and splits the coffin open. Suddenly, to his horror, the human-esque figure he thought was dead rises from the coffin. Cue laughter.
The mood was light-hearted at the Michigan Theater’s Thursday showing of “Nosferatu,” one of cinema’s first horror movies. Students and Ann Arbor locals who were excited by this quasi-annual cultural experience.
The film is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” To get around this, names and words were changed: “Count Dracula” was changed to “Count Orlok” and “vampire” became “Nosferatu.”
Debuting in 1922, “Nosferatu” is one of the most famous and long-lasting productions of the German Expressionism movement and celebrates its 90th birthday in 2012.
Conceivably, you could rent “Nosferatu” and watch it at home — it’s even on Netflix instant queue. If you did that though, you’d be missing out on one of the great traditions of silent film — live music accompaniment.
It’s rare to attend a screening of a silent movie these days, let alone a silent one with music alongside. Luckily, the Michigan Theater, equipped with a Barton organ, is one of the few theaters left that continues this venerable tradition.
“There is only a handful of these organs left in the country,” said Emily Mathews, the marketing director of the Michigan Theater.
The theater has five organists who perform on a rotating basis.
Steven Ball, a professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance played for the “Nosferatu” screening. His music enriched and reflected the characters of the film. A happy, light theme followed Hutter, a real-estate agent who travels to Transylvania to sell a house to Count Orlok, also known as Nosferatu. Count Orlok, on the other hand, had a creepy, foreboding theme that utilized the lower notes.
The music kept people’s attention on the screen and helped cue important plot points which could otherwise be missed in a silent film. The organ also made the movie’s scary scenes more ominous, but it didn’t stop the audience from laughing at them.
The once-a-year show is made more special by Ball’s dedication to his music. The professor writes a new score for the film annually, so each year brings a new experience.
“It’s very much a jazz sensibility,” Mathews said. “He’ll say, ‘This year, I’m going to do this sort of theme, that’s going to be my focus and I’m going to improvise around it.’ ”
“Nosferatu” has been presented at the Michigan Theater for 18 years. While it doesn’t play annually, it shows most years. The theater still shows a silent horror film with live music around Halloween in the years “Nosferatu” doesn’t play, such as the 1925 version of “Phantom of the Opera” and a 1922 Swedish and Danish movie called “Häxan.”
“We show four or five silent films every year with some sort of musical accompaniment, because we want to show the depth and breadth of film history,” said Mathews.
The only other theater in the area that performs silent films with live music is the Redford Theater in Detroit. Unlike the Michigan Theater, the Redford only shows classic films.
Despite — or maybe because of — the overwhelming amount of bathos in the film, the audience was thoroughly entertained, leaving the theater energized and excited for a Halloween weekend.