The 86-year-old Vampire Film Needs a Careful Watching to Appreciate
Ironically, for a film that is 86 years old, “Nosferatu” starts off, like a bad, self-produced YouTube video.
Thankfully, it improves.
I’ve always wanted to watch the first vampire movie ever made and the one that is often considered the greatest adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” It’s an unofficial version and Stoker’s estate actually sued German Director F.W. Murnau over it. All copies of the film were ordered destroyed.
Obviously, it survived.
Murnau, who died in a car crash at age 43, didn’t even try very hard to disguise the movie: naming Harker Huffer and Count Dracula Count Orlok, leaving little doubt about the source material. It’s difficult for a generation weaned on special effects, surround sound, and the miracle of HD-TV to really appreciate “Nosferatu” (1922) without boredom setting in (even at a short 80 minutes). The pacing is arduous and editing reflects the limited technologies of the day.
“Nosferatu” is black-and-white (and most versions, including the one I watched, are scratchy and a bit faded on the edges). It’s also a silent film, the narrative constantly interrupted by written dialog boxes.
There’s also a lot of overacting employed by actors of the day (after all they needed to convey in action what is now done through speech). But to modern audiences the exaggerated facial expressions get tiresome rather quickly.
Yet if you settle into the right frame of mind – there’s a lot to admire in “Nosferatu.” The highlight is actor Max Schreck as Count Graf Orlok. He’s simply repulsive. Unlike the modern versions of vampires as charming seducers, Schreck’s Orlok is a monstrosity. He’s a hideous skeletal being with long bony fingers, ears like a bat, and fangs that look like they belong on an oversized rodent. There’s nothing enchanting about him.
He’s creepy. Very creepy. The famous shot of him rising up out of coffin – filled with soil from the graveyard of Black Death victims – his body stiff and straight – and it’s easy to understand why the film has lasted more than eight decades.
Murnau accomplished a lot with his limited resources. He expertly uses light and shadow. In fact, Schreck’s shadow could be considered another character in the film. And there are marvelous symbols scattered throughout the film: from a skeleton clock to the Venus Fly trap eating a bug. Murnau is able to cobble together a compelling narrative with few dialog cards, allowing, for the most part, the action to unfold. But like any horror movie, the real question is: Is “Nosferatu” scary?
The answer, unfortunately, is: hardly. By today’s standards, the film would have a difficult time scaring a five year old. It has eerie moments – and Schreck is in most of them – but it’s a tame ride for anyone who has watched John Carpenter’s “Halloween” or Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Amazingly, the film was banned for “excessive horror” in Sweden until 1972.
“Nosferatu” remains an oddity, a film any serious horror aficionado should watch in order to understand the origins of the genre. The film’s greatest impact may have been in bringing the world the concept of sunlight killing vampires. “Nosferatu” is the source material for that bit of legend.
Watch it, but don’t expect too much. The hype and the legend around “Nosferatu” are much better than the actual film.