Museum Review: Night of the Nosferatu

Night of the Nosferatu review

Is the history of the Dracula family worth a drive to Ventura? Read our Night of the Nosferatu review to find out...

Night of the Nosferatu, at the Museum of Ventura County, offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore a fascinating footnote in the legacy of the world's most famous vampire. The exhibit consists of miniature figures by George Stuart, depicting the lineage of the infamous Voivode Vlad Tsepes, known in English as Vlad "The Impaler," and better known as "Son of the Dragon" - that is, Dracula. The intricately detailed and incredibly lifelike miniatures are posed against atmospheric backdrops, in a darkened room, with sinister music teasing the eardrums, creating a series of eerie tableau that should spark soft frisson, mixed with admiration for the artistry involved in the creations and their presentation.

Night of the Nosferatu Review: History
Night of the Nosferatu Review
The lineage of the Draculas ends in decapitation.

Almost as interesting as the figures is the story of their creation. Stuart is a historian and artist, who crafted miniatures as visual aides for his historical presentations. The Dracula family was created for a short theatrical presentation given at the Ventura museum during Halloween, essentially a live puppet show, performed to taped narration and music, depicting a fictional "history" of the Dracula clan. The figures ("puppets" hardly does them justice") were designed to be manipulated by hand, with moving heads and arms or mechanics to make them rise from their coffins. One was even decapitated on a miniature guillotine at the climax, with results even more startling than planned: the neck was made of carrot for an easy slice, but the blade struck the head, launching it into the audience!

Only a few performances were given, from 1979 through 1981; then the figures were put in storage by the artist. Stuart, who resides in Ojai, maintains a relationship with the Museum of Ventura County, which has a room reserved for his work, with different pieces swapped in and out periodically. Nearly four decades after their stage debut, Stuart's Dracula figures went on display in October, to be viewed as artworks in their own right, not as props in a play.

Night of the Nosferatu Review: Presentation

Considering that the pieces were never intended to be perused at length in static poses, they withstand closeup scrutiny surprisingly well. Forehead wrinkles, snarling lips, and vicious fangs combine with deftly rendered skin tones to create figures on par with the sort of extremely well-executed stop-motion puppets that once were used to create cinema special effects. Not surprisingly, a wall in the exhibit room detailing Stuart's techniques shows that he used molds to cast his creations, much as special effects experts did in the days before computer-generated imagery took over the silver screen. Photographed in closeup, Stuart's Dracula characters could pass for life-sized mannequins or even living beings.

Night of the Nosferatu Review
A widow mourns for one of Dracula's descendants.

Since Night of the Nosferatu traces the Dracula family over the course of several centuries, there are multiple characters, including Vlad and several descendants, only some of whom resemble the familiar literary and cinematic vampire. Arranged chronologically, the exhibit begins with the Story Teller (who introduced the live presentation), then proceeds through several generations, with small display cards providing written explanations of the characters. Because the real-life warlord was beheaded in battle, making positive i.d. of his remains impossible, latter family members could possibly be Vlad himself, now in the form of an immortal vampire - for example, a fanged nobleman in aristocratic attire who appears centuries letter, bearing a name that resembles an Italian spelling of "Tsepes."

Count Dracula himself is depicted an interesting amalgam of elements. He wears the cloak and evening clothes, along with a widow's peak for a hairline, popularized by Bela Lugosi, but his feral expression, fangs, pointed fingernails, thick eyebrows, and mustache hearken back to the description in Bram Stoker's novel. (Curiously, the pronounced facial hair almost suggests a light-skinned version of William Marshall's Blacula.) Other characters include a trio of brides and a duplicitous cleric who allows the final scion of the family to go to the guillotine for crimes he did not commit.

Night of the Nosferatu Review
Count Dracula

Although Night of the Nosferatu displays the figures as objects d'art, the exhibit offers more than an opportunity to admire George Stuarts' craftsmanship; the presentation invites visitors into a strange netherworld of the undead. Museum curator Eric Howes has supplied backdrops resembling stage flats, which morph each display case into a diorama, suggesting the theatrical origins of the figures. The settings, enhanced with careful lighting, imbue the characters with a semblance of dramatic vitality, despite their static positioning. Further immersing viewers into the landscape of the Dracula clan, ominous music wafts through the tenebrous room, much of it from the play's soundtrack, including  Wendy Carlos's title music for A Clockwork Orange. The result is that entranced observers may feel themselves succumbing to the mesmeric spell of the vampire, at least for a brief moment.

Night of the Nosferatu Review: Conclusion
Night of the Nosferatu Review
Dracula's Bride (photo by Steve Biodrowski)

There are only two downsides to Night of the Nosferatu. First, although the figures were built to move, they remain stationary in their displays. It would have been nice to incorporate a video clip showcasing their articulation - for example, on the exhibition room's wall display, where photographs and text explain George Stuart's methods of creating the figures. Second, the exhibit is rather small - it is possible to glimpse each display case in less than five minutes. Fortunately, the clever arrangement invites lengthier perusal, which rewards fans of horror iconography and lovers of Gothic-themed artistry. Those with an interest in puppetry and/or mechanical special effects will also find the exhibit worthwhile.

The only further request we could make would be to see an actual live performance of Night of the Nosferatu, resurrecting Dracula and his minions from the grave to strut and fret their hour upon the stage once more. Until that happens (if it ever happens), fans of  Stoker's creation may satisfy themselves with a glimpse of the infamous vampire frozen in time, immortal and deathless, his presence in a museum an ironic reminder that the Count's fictional legacy of fantasy and horror has eclipsed the historical significance of the real-life Voivode from whom Dracula took his name.

Night of the Nosferatu Review: Photo Gallery

Images courtesy of the Museum of Ventura County except where noted.

Night of the Nosferatu Rating
4.5

Bottom Line

The Museum of Ventura County’s exhibit offers more than an opportunity to admire the artistry and craftsmanship of George Stuart’s amazing miniature Dracula figures. The clever presentation – with atmospheric backdrops, eerie music, and low-key lighting – invites visitors into a strange netherworld of the undead.

Note: Size is only reason this exhibit doesn’t score a 5 out of 5 stars. It’s small but quite fascinating.

Night of the Nosferatu runs through February 3, 2019 at the Museum of Ventura County, 100 East Main Street. Ventura 93001. Hours are 11am to 5pm Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, call 805.653.0323, or visit: venturamuseum.org.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.

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