Albin Grau’s Nosferatu

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For many directors a film like Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) would have been a career peak, but Friedrich Murnau went on to make The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926) and Sunrise (1927). All those films improve cinematically on Nosferatu but the vampire film continues to cast the longest shadow: quoted, remade, and with even its production fictionalised in Shadow of the Vampire (2000). The lasting success of Nosferatu wasn’t all Murnau’s doing, however.

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It’s arguable that without the preliminary work of production designer Albin Grau (1884–1971) the film might have been little more than a curious precursor of the Universal Dracula (1931). Grau was responsible for the set design and the extraordinary appearance of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok; Grau also created the film’s memorable poster and advertising imagery in which the vampire’s appearance hints at something even more terrible than the figure that stalks before the camera.

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A great deal of German silent cinema is labelled “Expressionist” even if the films themselves show little in the way of overt Expressionism. Nosferatu isn’t very Expressionist at all but Albin Grau’s sketches and posters certainly tend in that direction, so much so that they make me wonder how different the film might have been if it had been as stylised as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). In addition to his artistic pursuits, Grau was an occultist which explains the attention to detail in the bizarre contract drawn up between Knock and Count Orlok, a document that looks more like a page from a grimoire than anything used by an estate agent. There’s a quote from Grau in his occult capacity in John Symonds’ Aleister Crowley biography, The Great Beast, complaining in 1925 about Crowley’s ascension to the heights of the Ordo Templi Orientis.

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Nosferatu: The Knock-Orlok contract.

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Nosferatu comes out of the occult preoccupations, having been Grau’s project from the beginning when he formed a film company, Prana-Film, with Enrico Dieckmann. The pair announced plans for three films: Dreams of Hell, The Devil of the Swamp, and a drama about a vampire. Only Nosferatu materialised then sank the company almost as soon as it was finished: Prana-Film had spent more on publicity than on the film itself, and went deep into debt. The success of the film might have helped their finances but the death blow was struck by Florence Stoker and the British Society of Authors who won a court case against the company for filming Dracula without permission. The efforts of the Stoker estate to destroy Nosferatu are recounted in detail in David J. Skal’s fascinating Hollywood Gothic (1990). Many of Murnau’s minor films were lost through various misfortunes, and it’s a fluke that a handful of prints of Nosferatu survived. Happily for us, it’s not only vampires that manage to remain undead.

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The Mysteries of Myra

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Aleister Crowley in 1912.

Back in 1999 I found myself making notes for a short essay on the subtle and often tenuous presence of Aleister Crowley in cinema. Despite Crowley’s reputation in the early years of the 20th century—famously labelled by tabloid hyperbole as “The Wickedest Man in the World”—he doesn’t seem to have ever been filmed. He does have a succession of cinematic avatars, however, in a variety of thrillers and horror films, usually manifesting in the guise of a fictional magus whose exploits will be based on the more lurid public perceptions of the Crowley persona.

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After some research my short essay bloomed into a longer essay then began developing into a book-length project which I had the good sense to abandon. The idea still interests me but I didn’t have the time or resources to devote to all the detailed research such a project would require if it was going to be done thoroughly. It was also difficult at that time to see the some of the more obscure films, a crucial early example being Rex Ingram’s 1926 adaptation of The Magician, Somerset Maugham’s first novel whose central character, Oliver Haddo, is based on Crowley. The Magician has now been restored and reissued but at that time it was out of circulation entirely.

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A Portuguese magazine ad.

It’s also the case that there always seems to be more to find on this subject, a prime example being The Mysteries of Myra, a lost serial directed by Leopold & Theodore Wharton which has only now come to my attention. If the title seems vaguely familiar it’s because the screenwriter was one Charles W Goddard whose earlier The Perils of Pauline survives as a touchstone for silent melodrama if nothing else. The Mysteries of Myra dates from 1916, and is distinguished by being one of a number of films which received effects advice (and publicity, of course) from Harry Houdini. The Pulp Reader has a précis which includes this toothsome blurb:

BEWARE THE BLACK ORDER! So comes the warning from the spirit of Myra Maynard’s father, who reaches out to her from beyond the grave to warn her of danger from the masters of the occult arts that lurk in the shadows and mark her for murder on her eighteenth birthday. Only the world’s first psychic detective, Dr. Payson Alden, and his friend Haji the Brahman mystic, can save clairvoyant Myra from the terrors of The Grand Master of the Order, who tries to claim not only her fortune but her life by means of suicide-inducing spells, invasion of her chamber by spirit assassins, and even reanimation of the dead by a fire elemental.

A list of the episode titles reads like a track list for a metal album or a collection of Algernon Blackwood stories: ‘The Dagger of Dreams’, ‘The Poisoned Flower’, ‘The Mystic Mirrors’, ‘The Wheel of Spirit’, ‘The Fumes of Fear’, ‘The Hypnotic Clue’, ‘The Mystery Mind’, ‘The Nether World’, ‘Invisible Destroyer’, ‘Levitation’, ‘The Fire-Elemental’, ‘Elixir of Youth’, ‘Witchcraft’, ‘Suspended Animation’, ‘The Thought Monster’. The Black Order menacing the imperilled Myra (there’s always an imperilled woman in these things) is almost certainly based on Crowley and his acolytes. John Symonds’ biography The Great Beast contains an account of Crowley’s rituals published for appalled American readers in The World Magazine in 1914. That article, and the famous 1912 photo of The Master Therion gesturing in his ceremonial robes, was all the filmmakers would have required to create their villainous cabal.

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The Black Order at work.

The trouble with this kind of drama is that the description is often a lot more stimulating than the stodgy reality, so it may be for the best if Myra’s exploits have perished. Anyone eager to know more should avail themselves of the photonovel put together by the Serial Squadron using stills (some of which may be viewed here) and a novelisation of the serial story. The book is reviewed at Lovecraft is Missing. Unless anyone knows better, I’d say Aleister Crowley’s curious film career began with Myra’s mysteries.

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Kenneth Grant, 1924–2011

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Kenneth Grant by Austin Spare (c. 1951).

Kenneth Grant, writer and occultist, died last month but the event was only announced this week. He’ll be remembered for the nine fascinating occult treatises he wrote from 1972 to 2002, and for continuing the work of Aleister Crowley as head of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a position which became fraught in later years as various occult factions disputed his authority. Having collected occult books for much of the 1980s I find his name calls out from the shelves more than many other writers; as well as authoring his own works he edited all the major Crowley texts with Crowley’s executor John Symonds, presenting them in authoritative editions for a new readership.

Grant proved a very loyal champion of people he admired, significantly so in the case of Austin Osman Spare whose work he collected, exhibited and republished from the 1950s on. It was Grant’s position as one of the many advisors for Man, Myth & Magic in 1970 which resulted in the part-work encyclopedia using one of Spare’s stunning drawings as the cover picture for its first issue. That effort alone gave Spare an audience far beyond anything he received during his lifetime, and Grant ensured the magazine featured Spare’s work in subsequent issues. Grant’s occult works made liberal use of unique illustrations by his wife, Steffi Grant, Austin Spare and others. The books were singular enough even without their pages of curious artwork, a beguiling and sometimes incoherent blend of western occult tradition, tantric sex magick and hints of cosmic horror which were nevertheless always well-written, annotated and crammed with technical detail. Alan Moore in 2002 examined the experience of an immersion in Grant’s mythos with a wonderful review he called “Beyond our Ken“. He notes there the influence of HP Lovecraft, another of the visionary figures who Grant championed throughout his life.

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In Spaces Between from The Great Old Ones (1999).

And speaking of Lovecraft, I’ve often wondered whether Kenneth Grant ever saw a copy of my Haunter of the Dark collection. For the opening of the Great Old Ones Kabbalah sequence which Alan Moore and I created for the book I added an extra piece of art entitled In Spaces Between, a reference to Coil via an epigraph from Grant’s Outside the Circles of Time (1980) which I borrowed for the facing page:

For there are Thrones under ground
And the Monarchs upon them
Reign over Space and Beyond

Invoke Them in Darkness, Outside
The Circles of Time

In Silence, in Sleep, in Conjurations
Of Chaos, the Deep will respond…

Coil aficionados will recognise those words as the origin of some lines from Titan Arch (1991):

There are Thrones under ground
And Monarchs upon them
They walk serene
In spaces between

Grant followed his epigraph with another quote, from Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.

In addition to Alan Moore’s Grant review, Fulgur have a detailed Kenneth Grant bibliography on their pages. They were also the publishers in 1998 of Zos Speaks! Encounters with Austin Osman Spare by Kenneth and Steffi Grant, a memoir and celebration of Spare’s work which revealed this trio of remote astral voyagers to be human beings after all. The book is currently out of print but it’s essential for anyone interested in Austin Spare or, for that matter, Mr and Mrs Grant.

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