Greetings, and welcome to the first edition of a brand new year-long series here in The Vault of Horror. For me, dear readers, the year 2012 means only one thing--and that's the 90th anniversary of one of horror cinema's true unassailable classics, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. It's hard to fathom that this film is almost a century old, and even more impressive is its continued ability to shock and terrify no matter how much time passes. Just as I did in years past with A Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho and An American Werewolf in London, I'll be posting throughout the next 12 months on this, the first and greatest of all Dracula adaptations.
How is it that this film still can effect us so profoundly, when so much of horror's power is drawn from the unexpected? One would think that age would be the death knell of a great horror movie, and yet films like Nosferatu prove this to be dead wrong. Whether you're discovering it for the first time all these decades later, or watching it for the 90th time, Nosferatu has the power to utterly creep you out. Personally, I credit it to the merits of German Expressionism.
And Murnau was undoubtedly one of the pioneers of this form of cinema, cutting edge for its time and a far cry from the American, Hollywood style that would soon dominate filmmaking in the years to come. Make no mistake, the silent era of film belonged to the Europeans, and the Germans, in particular, in addition to the Russians and the French, certainly left their mark. Like the best of his peers, Murnau achieved that defining goal of Expressionism in all its forms, namely to evoke pure emotion through the visual medium. Expressionistic works are in a sense dreams brought to life, and in the case of Nosferatu, that dream is most decidedly a nightmare.
The film oozes atmosphere from beginning to end, and is jam-packed with iconic imagery that has stood the test of time for a reason. Interestingly enough, it also set a standard for vampire films, and Dracula adaptations in particular, that was not really followed (at least not for many years). Nosferatu stands out on its own as a unique and truly cinematic retelling of the Dracula story, with liberal license taken, of course. It is vastly different from the Hamilton Deane and John Balderston play that would first be staged two years after its release--the version which inspired Universal's famous talkie version with Bela Lugosi at the start of the next decade.
Nosferatu chooses a different path, eschewing the nascent sex appeal of the vampire to take a more traditional, folkloric approach. The vampire here is still in his repulsive, pre-modern form--there is nothing at all sexy or alluring about Count Orlok (Unless you're into that sort of thing. Who am I to judge?) If anything, the vampire here is a metaphor for plague, and even possesses certain undeniable anti-Semitic overtones (but that's a post for another day).
Still, the story is undeniably Bram Stoker's. So much so that Stoker's widow and her crack legal team nearly had the film eradicated from the face of the earth (another post for a later day). Thankfully for film lovers everywhere, Ms. Stoker was not successful in her efforts, and the movie remains extant to this day for new generations of horror fans to discover and relish. There are many horror classics that stand the test of time, but few are as truly timeless as this one, defying changing filmmaking styles and changing filmgoing tastes to remain a favorite of genre fans. It is just as fresh now as it was when it emerged from a Germany still reeling from the First World War.
In addition to its Expressionistic roots, or perhaps in connection to them, I have always found that the film retains so much power largely because it is so visual in nature. Of course, this was very much necessary due to the limitations (or some might say advantages) of silent cinema, in that the visual was the easiest and most effective way to get your message across. Later versions of Dracula--and indeed horror films in general of the next couple of decades--would rely less on imagery and more on dialogue and cerebral scares. This is not to say that Nosferatu is not a psychologically frightening film, but I would submit that more of the terror it inspires is derived from the direct impact of what we see on screen. It is not so much suspenseful as it is downright terrifying to look at.
As has been the case throughout most of film history, America has been resistant to foreign films, and so this film did not even have a chance to be released here when it first was made in 1922. In fact, it wasn't until the 1960s, many years after a single surviving print had made its way to these shores in defiance of a court order, that it began to attain the cult following in the U.S. that it now enjoys. I have had the privilege of witnessing Nosferatu on the big screen with live musical accompaniment not once, but twice. And although I had my gripes with both viewings (an ironic, snarky crowd the first time out; and wholly inappropriate music the second time), I still consider myself fortunate to have had the experience.
At the time, Nosferatu was largely overshadowed by the Universal Dracula, and later the Hammer Dracula of the 1950s-70s, and yet its interesting to note that nowadays, most horror fans would place Max Schreck right alongside Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee as one of the screen's iconic Counts. In fact, many vampire aficionados--including this one--will still argue that Nosferatu, the original vampire film, remains the very best to this day. A puzzling notion maybe, in that nobody has been able to top it in 90 years; and yet instead of bemoaning the state of vampire cinema for the past century, I will choose instead to celebrate the fact of Nosferatu's existence. And if it so pleases you, I invite you to join me in doing so for the remainder of 2012.
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