The Apex Of Horror Cinema

BILL WOOD | JUNE 25, 2020

The vampire film is essentially a movie genre unto itself, along with its various sub-genres. You’ve got your romantic vampire films, your comedic vampire films, your vampire documentaries, and of course, your out-and-out vampire films (a.k.a. horror). In fact, these toothy denizens of the netherworld have been getting their fair share of attention almost from the time the cinematic experience was first conceived. The world has produced hundreds of bloodsucking chillers up to present day, with varying degrees of success. Some actors parlayed their vampiric roles into lifelong careers, while others abandoned their velvet-lined coffins as soon as they were able. The list of notable vampire films and actors is indeed quite lengthy.


And yet, it is a single German film produced nearly a century ago that prevails the test of time as the single greatest vampire flick ever made, by some distance.


Filmed in 1922 by a soon-to-become-legendary director named Friedrich Wilhelm (F.W.) Murnau, Nosferatu is highly regarded as a masterpiece in German expressionist cinema. And while this certainly is true, the film also works on a modern visceral level as a landmark of horror cinema. Of its contemporaries, only Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) comes close. Nearly one hundred years later and through repeated viewings, Nosferatu still manages to unsettle and terrify.


What is it about this antiquated silent film that creates such a thoroughly powerful viewing experience? Much of the credit belongs to actor Max Schreck, whose portrayal of Count Orlok is one of—if not the—all-time great horror performances. From the time he first appears onscreen, Schreck is terrifying, exuding an aura of ill will and sinister intent. Sure there is plenty of over-dramatizing for the camera (this is a silent film after all), but Shreck also manages to inject the role with a degree of restraint and subtlety, no small feat for an era only slightly removed from Vaudeville. The way his hirsute brows raise with interest when perusing a document, the hypnotic glare in his impossibly large eyes (apparently he is caught blinking just once throughout the entire film), even his posture and body movements seem unnatural and otherworldly.


Along with Max Schreck, the two most famous vampire movie actors are undoubtedly Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. And while their initial performances as Count Dracula are highly regarded, both actors also eventually suffered from reprising the role all too frequently (much to their personal disinterest), with Lugosi going as far as to become a caricature of his Dracula persona by the end of his career. Perhaps if Shreck had followed suit and we ended up with Nosferatu vs. The Three Stooges, we’d be viewing his chilling performance in a slightly different light. Thank God this never happened.


F.W. Murnau’s superb direction must also be given attention, especially the manner in which he manipulates both darkness and light for the camera. Count Orlok is often presented on-screen merely as a shadow, ever the threat of impending doom. Even Orlok’s silhouetted castle maintains an eerie presence all its own. Instead of filling the frame with the surrealistic, dream-like imagery of his contemporaries (e.g. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Murnau opts for stark realism throughout, the only surrealistic moments are provided by the Count himself as he navigates through our material world in the most un-material manner . The only unfortunate effects occur in the night scenes, where due to the limitation of not being able to film in the dark, the film is instead presented in negative format. Other evening scenes are obviously filmed in broad daylight, with exposition given to the viewer via dialogue ("You must not travel at night!"). It's all a bit jarring to the modern viewer, thankfully it doesn't occur often.


One of Nosferatu's primary strengths—apart from the cinematic mastery—is the fact that the film itself now exists within its own creepy time frame, its own distorted historical bubble. There were no sequels (there have been attempts to remake it, but we can ignore those). It was originally filmed as a period piece based on a 25-year-old novel, but those timelines have long since blurred, the silent film itself having been relegated to ancient history decades ago. The result is that Nosferatu feels like an authentic world of ancient haunts have that may have actually existed.


That Nosferatu exists at all is something of a miracle shrouded in its own mythos. The story is that the German producers wanted to film a Dracula movie yet were denied permission by Bram Stoker's estate. Instead of doing the prudent thing and commissioning an original vampire script, they simply chose to film the story of Count Dracula anyway and change the names (to protect the not-so-innocent!). A subsequent court case was found in favor of the Stoker estate, and all existing prints of the Nosferatu film were ordered to be destroyed. It goes without saying that this order was not carried out to its fullest, much to the delight of horror buffs everywhere.


On personal note, I was fortunate enough to attend a viewing of Nosferatu at the Historic Everett Theatre in Everett, Washington. With an icy December rain drizzling outside, seated in a 120-year-old theatre accompanied by a live organist, this particular screening of Nosferatu was pretty much the perfect experience!


If you’re already a Nosferatu junkie, there probably isn’t much you’ve learned here. If I've prompted you to revisit this classic for an umpteenth time, then my work is done. But if by chance you are among those who love horror films and haven’t seen this masterpiece yet, I have good news for you. Nosferatu exists within the public domain and is readily available from numerous streaming sites, many of them are free. For those willing to invest, the Kino blu-ray is a brilliant transfer. Also worthy of viewing is Shadow Of The Vampire, which stars John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe, and takes a fantastically humorous look at the filming of the movie. - BW

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Twilight Zone poster art by Bill Wood.