Before the corniness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, teeny-boppers of Twilight, The Lost Boys of the ‘80s, sexy interviews with Tom and Brad, and the cliché of Dracula himself, there was an insufferable, disease-bearing beast that crept through the dark forests of the Carpathian Mountains. The Romanians of the late 19th century called him Nosferatu, and in 1922, this pale incarnation made his cinematic debut in a black and white silent film that continues to make your skin crawl almost a hundred years later.
You know the basic story because it comes straight out of Bram Stoker’s 1897 legend: Feeble-minded Hutter, a real estate apprentice, travels through the Transylvanian woods to the eerie castle of Count Orlok (Max Shreck). Orlock is interested in purchasing a “deserted” house in the nearby town, Hutter wants to close the deal, and everyone but Hutter knows there’s much more behind Orlock’s plan: A ship full of plague-ridden rats is about to dock, and while death knocks on the townspeople’s door, Orlock will be the first to feast on their blood. He just needs to find a place to stay and enjoy a few human necks on the way…
Through the first attempts at montage in cinema history, an accelerated celluloid frame rate, and an overabundance of shadows, Director F.W. Murnau unleashes images only our nightmares can conjure. Even without a single jump scare, splash of gore, or an anticipated sense of “horror” in general, Murnau’s silent film frightens by eternally imprinting dark pictures into your mind. The deathly slow walk up the stairwell, the wide-eyed glare from the windowsill, and the infamous levitation out of the casket scene – these are ghostly icons other movies have only been able to copy or mistreat. (Simply by adding color, for example, a director erases optical depth and defeats the purpose of cinematic ambiguity.)
If Robert Pattinson could see a starkly contrasting image of himself in the mirror, he would see Nosferatu. Played more like a rabid dog, cowering in the corner, Max Schreck’s interpretation of a vampire is less a spectacle and more a freak of nature. The myth is that his interpretation was so painstakingly odd to watch, everyone on the set actually believed he was a vampire! (Be sure to see Willem Dafoe play Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire, 2000.)
Because Nosferatu is a black and white, silent “oldie,” its appeal may not suit younger audiences or anyone with a short attention span, for that matter. You have every right to poke fun at the over-the-top acting, ancient technology, or disjointed narrative, and this alone is entertaining. However, if we try to imagine sinking our boots into the cold, central Romanian soil of the 1920s and looking up at the daunting castle looming above us, and seeing the pale face of a sickly beast in the highest window, we also have the right to feel chills.
The etymological origin of the word, Nosferatu, isn’t clear with historians, making the lore even creepier. “Insufferable” and “disease-bearing” are the closest terms historians can come to the Romanian understanding of “blood-sucking evil animal.”
I prefer “Nosferatu” to “Dracula.” One remains an obscure nightmare, while the other becomes a cartoon and a typecast.
Happy October, readers! May you find the escape you need in your horror movies (because that is what some of us do).