Conjuring Darkness: Bill Skarsgård and the Rebirth of Nosferatu

Among the incestuous Hollywood horror crowd, few actors can boast a shadow as long and cold as the one cast by Bill Skarsgård. In Stephen King’s It (2017) – a horrific tale of a cursed and murderous clown – Skarsgård played Pennywise, a character who has been interpreted and reimagined through the prism of many different actors but, with his gaunt figure and perpetually opened jaws, has come to serve as a moving metaphor for evil itself. Now, Skarsgård is luring us into the dark heart of Nosferatu. The actor isn’t playing Nosferatu – he is terrorizing us with a finely honed impression of evil.

The Unsettling Allure of Skarsgård's Characters

Skarsgård’s macabre climb through the basement of Tinseltown has been a dizzying succession of characters who exploit our worst anxieties, and each part adds another layer to his mysterious persona. His work in Pennywise was acting as fear itself. It is a special talent: to transform the actor’s all-important charisma into something menacing. That’s what makes for such a potent horror star.

Diving into the Shadows: The Role of Count Orlock

In an Esquire interview on his role in the new film Nosferatu (out later this year), Skarsgård digs deep into vampirism and gets to the heart of what it means to be cursed: ‘I had to ask myself so many questions about the character of the vampire. I had to audition a few times, with various voices and different looks. Then I gave in, allowed myself to embody the part of this guy. I tried different ways, until suddenly Robert [Eggers] looked at me and believed it. And I believed it too. I believed I could do it.’

The Transformation: More Than Skin Deep

To become Count Orlock, it wasn’t enough for Skarsgård to simply shape his body; he had to alter his soul. Props and make-up transformed him into a visually unrecognisable creature – but it was the impression that was left indelible. ‘Pure evil’ is how he said he tried to play the role. The actor went to such a place alone, that it cost him: He worked in isolation from his castmates, and, just as in the case of The Master, spent the hours between takes alone with himself.

A Collaboration of the Macabre

What comes through from Skarsgård describing how he prepared for the role in Nosferatu is a distinct sense of his involvement in a rich collaboration along the way: Working with Eggers … he helped me delve into the psyche of this character, a dead sorcerer, or a man who triggers gut-wrenching fear. For lack of better terms, we sought to plumb the occult and macabre. Together, we’ll see where it leads, whatever it may be. This is going to be so f**king brutal. I mean, I want everyone to piss themselves. We’re going to change the meaning of horror films forever.

An Impression Lasting Beyond the Screen

This intensity of commitment, of inhabiting his roles, of making of them something more than acting, more than impression, is central to what makes him so unique in the genre. Like all his other vampires, Nosferatu delves into the monstrous core of humanity (and inhumanity) and plants the vampire fist firmly on the chest to keep it there. He’s still making us feel things we might not want to feel.

The Essence of an Impression

To impress is to mark oneself upon the mind of another. The process requires a depth of involvement – of feeling – that lives on in the memory of both viewer and viewed, long after their initial experience together. When Bill Skarsgård (in the role of Nosferatu) impresses his audience the way he impresses the screen, when he plants himself in their imaginations, he impresses. As Beltrami’s Nosferatu edges its way towards the big screen, it is this capacity to summon and impress that presages the film’s place in the history of horror.

And Bill Skarsgård’s decidedly recognisable performance as Pennywise the dancing clown as well as Count Orlock signals a larger trajectory in his career: an investigation – and, increasingly, an embrace – of that which is just on the other side of the line separating the beautiful from the hideous; that which is off-kilter and disturbing; that which is downright fearful. Courtesy Netflix Skarsgård’s performances don’t just act on us; they draw us into the dark and leave us with an impression of something that sticks with us long after the film is over. Hopping aboard Nosferatu’s creaky coffin as audiences prepare to meet Skarsgård’s version of it, what’s left for us to say? The shape of horror to come, like Skarsgård’s Nosferatu and the shadowy cultural legacy he looks destined to leave, will surely loom large.

May 30, 2024
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