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Graf Orlok

Silent Screamers
by yo go re

In the late '90s, horror movie toys were all the rage. McFarlane's Movie Maniacs had not yet shown signs of its sad, sputtering failure, and other companies wanted a piece of that pie. It would still be a few years before NECA got the money together to start Cult Classics, but in 2000, design house Art Asylum teamed with a new investor to form Aztech Toyz, and entered the market by claiming a few public domain silent film licenses, calling their toys Silent Screamers.

The first series of toys had characters from two movies: Cesare the Sleepwalker and Dr. Caligari from 1919's Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari, and Knock Renfield and Graf Orlok from the 1922 classic Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. FW Murnau's film was basically an unauthorized production of Dracula, with several names changed when the studio couldn't get the rights to the novel.

Actually, the film was nearly lost because of that. Florence Stoker, Bram's widow, sued for copyright infringement and won, and the court ordered all copies of the film destroyed. Luckily, it had already been distributed around the world, and there was no way to get every copy back. Today it's considered one of the best movie incarnations of the vampire legend ever created, so let's hear it for thumbing your nose at The Man!

Part of the appeal of these old horror movies is the way they embraced the contemporary trend of German Expressionism. The extreme stylistic choices in visuals and acting - necessitated by Germany's poor economy - led to films that were actual works of art, not just moving pictures. In order to capture that same feeling, the Silent Screamers are not slavish reproductions of a specific scene or publicity still, but instead aim to capture the feel of the character. Thus, Orlok's body is twisted strangely, with an unnatural pose and odd proportions. His hip bones poke out beneath his raggedy tunic, and he's up on his toes, despite leaning way back. It's not that he's sculpted wrong, just that the rules have been broken with a purpose.

Count Orlok is the cinematic progenitor of a specific species of vampire: whereas Count Dracula is the sensuous, cultured sort, whose bite turns victims into more vampires, Orlok is hideous and rodent-like, and his bites only kill. Turns out the shirt is right: Twilight is a Dracula. And I Am Legend is a Nosferatu. It's like a personality test. The figure's face is even more bestial than it was in the film, with solid black eyes, an off-proportion head, deeply sunken cheeks and fangs that are even more exaggerated than the ones Max Schreck wore [or didn't! --ed.].

The figure was sculpted by Staffan Linder, based on a garage kit he'd made in 1998. Despite that, this isn't a strict re-creation, nor is it immobile. Aztech Toyz shamed McFarlane right out of the gate, because Orlok has a swivel neck, swivel/hinge shoulders, hinged elbows, swivel forearms, a swivel waist, and swivels where the thighs poke out of his coat. It's not a ton of motion, but it beats Movie Maniacs. One of my figure's "wrists" was stuck, and not even freezer time could save it. I just picked a good neutral pose for it and glued it in place.

All the Silent Screamers came in two variations: color or black and white. Now, normally that would a pretty straightforward pair of figures, right? Just ask NECA, who did the same thing with their Sin City and TMNT toys. But for this line, things got confusing. See, the figure in this review? The one that's painted all in grayscale? That's the color version. No, seriously. That's why there's a bit of red in his mouth and on his nails. The "black & white" versions are actually sepia-tone, which technically makes them more colorful than the color versions. Crazy! Believe us, that led to a heck of a lot confusion when discussing the toys, or trying to buy online.

The Silent Screamers each came with a sizeable display base. Count Orlok's is a section of asylum wall with paved ground outside it. The base is designed to fit together with the one included with the other Nosferatu figure, Knock Renfield, completing the scene. The wall looks like cement over bricks, with a few bent bars rising up through what is presumably a window. It's hard to tell, since there are so many gaps in the masonry. The base is 7½" tall, 6" wide and 6" deep.

The ground is absolutely teeming with rats: swarming around Orlok's feet, pressing against the wall, everywhere. There are 60 of the things sculpted on the base, and they're all individually painted. You don't get that on toys any more! There are two sets of footpegs on the base - one set if you're displaying Orlok alone and want him facing away from the wall, and another if you're displaying him with Knock and want him looking more toward the cell. That's good planning!

And just in case you hate seeing bare spots in your pile of vermin, the set includes six loose rats - three brown and three grey - that the Count can either clutch in his hands, or you can use them to cover the unused footpegs. Clever idea, well-executed... this is what great accessories should be.

Nosferatu is the ur-example of vampires being harmed by sunlight. It certainly wasn't in Dracula, despite what most people think - Drac could wander around in daylight with no problems. Heck, it wasn't even in Henrik Galeen's script, so any vamp who gets burned by the sun is solely and directly attributable to FW Murnau. In honor of this monumentous change in the mythology, both versions of the Orlok figure will change color in sunlight. His skin is naturally pale, and the color it changes to is astonishingly dark, so he really does look like he's burning to a crisp - especially since the change happens so fast. Excellent!

Obviously, Aztech Toyz went all-out for their Silent Screamers. The figures have striking sculpts, above-average articulation (for a movie toy of the time) and thematically appropriate paint schemes and action features. The large bases add a lot to the value, and the packaging even featured artwork by Alex Ross. Unfortunately, Silent Screamers Series 1 was the only release by Aztech Toyz before they broke up with Art Asylum and ceased to be. Still, the toys are good, and Graf Orlok is the one who will have the widest appeal. Prices on these vary quite a bit, but if you can find a good deal, why not add this undead trailblazer to your collection?

-- 10/14/09

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