St Mary Redcliffe Church on a cold December night. The pews are uncomfortable and, so the chief priest warns us, medieval churches weren’t big on toilet facilities. Nevertheless, this is the chosen venue for The Magic Lantern FilmClub’s latest outing and the gothic surroundings are more than appropriate. The Magic Lantern have been organising classic film screenings in unusual locations around Bristol for some years now and doing sterling work raising money for AWAMU, a charity helping children affected by HIV in Uganda. But tonight is a bit different. Tonight’s film is everybody’s favourite piece of silent and scary German expressionism: Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922). But although many here tonight will have seen Nosferatu before, the fact that the music will be provided by a live band makes this a new experience for most. Bristol and London based Minima are a four-piece (guitar/bass/cello/drums) that have been performing live soundtracks to silent and avant-garde films since 2006 and the oft-screened Nosferatu has become something of a signature piece.
Dressed suitably in black, Minima are seated behind and below the suspended screen, their heads obscured, as the sell-out audience politely stakes claim on the best pews. Slowly, over the course of ten minutes or so, an almost subliminal murmur of sound rises from the band until an audience member shouts, “hey, they’re making spooky noises” and we all realise that the show has begun. Then the lights dim and as Nosferatu’s shaky opening credits roll, the haunting cello theme draws us into its nightmarish world.
It must be said that Minima’s interpretation of Nosferatu is not for the purists. Their sound is reminiscent of a less apocalyptic Godspeed You! Black Emperor and so tonight’s performance bears no similarity to the original 1922 score. But that, it would seem, is the point. With the original music unavailable until recent years, many composers have attempted to come up with definitive new interpretations resulting in Nosferatu becoming a living thing; a sort of dark Fantasia, if you will. Inevitably, these new themes have tended to become dated and, when one considers that Nosferatu’s almost unique quality is its ability to put the willies up an audience today as well as it did ninety years ago, dated accompaniment will not do. Minima’s modern yet organic sound embraces the passage of time since the film’s original release yet is completely contemporary, resulting in a fresh experience that still manages feel appropriate to a piece of cinema’s gothic past. Injections of musical humour may also not be to everyone’s taste but the overall effect is that of moodiness with all the added edge of a modern live band. Over an hour and a half Minima move around a few central motifs through haunting space punctuated by surprisingly upbeat rhythms. As Count Orlok is destroyed by the rays of a new dawn, the music drops back to the solo cello theme we started with. After this restrained and eloquent finale we finally see Minima’s faces as they come to take their bows. Unsurprisingly, despite the enthusiastic audience response, there are no encores, but then it seems there is simply nothing to add.
For more information on The Magic Lantern Film Club, go to magiclanternfilmclub.com.