I watch a lot of horror films. Aside from fantasy or science fiction, it’s probably my favorite genre. Perhaps it’s a measure of how jaded I am, or perhaps it’s a measure of how many horror films I’ve seen, but I rarely get genuinely frightened by horror films, especially modern ones. As a rule, I avoid the American slasher films and torture porn that have become the most popular form of “horror” film as of late. I prefer a horror film that gets under your skin, crawls through your brain, and sits there spinning for days. You don’t get that with Saw 22: Electric Boogaloo.
There is one film, above all other horror films that aren’t masquerading as Meg Ryan romantic comedies, that genuinely unnerves me beyond all others. That would be the classic, iconic and enduring silent charms of Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror. A loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by master German Expressionist F. W. Murnau, it ended up becoming as much of a touchstone in vampire lore Stoker’s famous novel.
Silent films fascinate for their ingenuity. They obviously didn’t have the special effects technology used in modern films. The special effects in a film like Metropolis are astounding because of how effective they are for the level of technology available. Similarly, a good portion of Nosferatu‘s appeal comes from its reliance not on special effects but on practical application of shadow and set design, allowing (or requiring) our brains to fill in the negative space. There is no voice that could possibly match the horror of seeing Count Orlok’s full vampiric form.
Bela Lugosi‘s defining role as Count Dracula established the cinematic trope of the charming, nobleman vampire. Count Orlok, however, is a vile monster. Ugly, misshapen and horrific, there is nothing attractive or alluring about him. He commands mortals through terror, not charisma. When he comes to town, he brings rats and the plague. If the Lugosi vampire is a metaphor for our fear of giving in to our primal instincts and our appetites for violence and sex, Max Schreck‘s Orlok is a metaphor for our fear of that primitive nature consuming us whole.
It’s telling that unlike Dracula, there is no Van Helsing character in Nosferatu. There is no knowledgable vampire hunter acting as a guide to the main character, no crusading force going to raid the castle and end the darkness. Orlok is only killed when Ellen (the Mina character of this film) uses herself as bait, giving herself over to nature. Orlok is so captivated by drinking her blood, that he forgets about sunrise and is destroyed at dawn. Nosferatu is the first instance in vampire fiction of a vampire being harmed by sunlight, something that would become standard vampire lore from that point forward. Orlok cannot be destroyed directly by human hands: he must be destroyed by the ancient powers that are the antithesis of the primitive forces that birthed him. It’s a reminder that we can never escape humanity’s primal side, no matter how civilized or enlightened we imagine ourselves to be.
It’s Nosferatu‘s philosophical thesis that makes it so terrifying on a level beyond the cheap jump moments that Roger Ebert calls the “It’s Only A Cat Cliche.” The slow, deliberate movements of Orlok seem like an inescapable force. The most remembered shot of the film, that of Orlok’s shadow creeping up the stairs, is unsettling for its insubstantial nature. Orlok is more of a consumptive, voracious force of nature than a thing of flesh and blood that can be handled, identified and made powerless by giving it a name. It’s the power of implied horror as opposed to obvious horror.
Despite all this, the world almost never got to know and appreciate the film at all. Bram Stoker’s widow successfully sued the makers of Nosferatu for copyright infringement. All copies of the film were to be destroyed. Luckily, the film had already been distributed around the world, and several copies escaped the purge. While it is an adaptation of Dracula, albeit with all of the secondary characters removed and a much more cosmic horror energy to it, it’s also something fully and totally its own.
Nosfearatu is required viewer of any fan of horror films. Not “should be”, but “is.” It created a number of horror and vampire tropes that became standard, and it’s foreboding atmosphere reminds us of when vampires were monstrous agents of darkness and not glittery, brooding abstinence rings with fangs. If you want a more lush, abstract take on the film, there is the also-excellent 1979 film Nosferatu The Vampyre with Klaus Kinski. Or you could go the dark comedy route and check out Shadow Of The Vampire, which creates a secret history of the making of the film where Max Schreck is an actual vampire and not merely an actor playing one. Still, nothing compares to seeing that shadow creep up the stairs, coming inexorably for Ellen’s (and your) doom. Nothing.
Nosferatu is public domain in the United States. You can download it for free at the Internet Archive, but the copy is of poor quality. Restored and more complete versions of the film (with much better music) are available on DVD. A thorough comparison between the public domain and restored versions illustrates the difference.