Dir. F.W Murnau
Reviewer. Dan Cook
“Does not the word sound like the death-bird at midnight?”
Along with Robert Weine’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, F.W Murnau’s 1922 silent masterpiece NOSFERATU stands as one of the defining cornerstones of the entire horror genre. One the first (albeit wholly unauthorised) cinematic adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it remains to this day an intensely creepy, highly atmospheric and incalculably inspirational movie that contains some of the most indelible imagery in cinema history.
Infamously made without the approval of Stoker’s estate, NOSFERATU was almost consigned to the fires of history, with almost every copy of the film ordered by the courts to be destroyed due to infringement of copyright. Thankfully, several prints miraculously survived this celluloid cull and due to illicit piracy, the film was made widely available. It is due to the unlawful acts of West German cinephiles that we are able to enjoy NOSFERATU today and what a debt we owe them.
Max Schreck is completely unforgettable as the monstrous Count Orlok, a truly hideous creature whose long fingers and rodentlike features are a far cry from the more sophisticated, more urbane Dracula’s of Lugosi, Lee and Oldman etc. In both Schreck’s predatory body language and his wholly alien design, there is a very real sense of disease and infection that the character of Orlok exudes and this in turn makes him far more repellant yet horribly believable as a hellish demon who ruthlessly preys on the living like a parasite. In fact, Shreck is so utterly convincing as the nightmarish blood-sucker that the actors and even Murnau himself came to believe that he was actually was a vampire in disguise - a curious bit of trivia that would later inspire Elias E. Merhige’s brilliant 2000 Oscar-nominated metafictional drama SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Shreck.
But beyond its mesmerising central performance, ‘Nosferatu’ is invaluable for its innovative direction by Murnau, its claustrophobic cinematography and its truly nightmarish air of dread and threat. Many will be familiar with the iconic image of Orlok’s spindly shadow climbing a staircase but few remember the films more subtle yet equally unnerving moments such as the vampires zombie-like awakening in the cavernous bowels of a ship or the sights of dozens of coffins being mournfully carried as Orlok’s reign of terror sweeps through a town like the plague. Almost every frame of ‘Nosferatu’ contains something interesting, something beautiful, something unusual or something haunting to behold and not even horror movies made today can claim that.
Even at 100 years old, NOSFERATU is an extraordinary film that is just as entertaining, just as strange and just as wholly watchable as the hundreds of vampire tales that would follow in its wake. Despite being referenced time and time again in countless horror pictures as well as serving as the subject of numerous parodies and even an impressive 1979 remake by Werner Herzog, this unique monochromatic gem is a must-see for anyone who considers themselves to be true horror fans. With the recently announced rerelease from Eureka, there is no reason that NOSFERATU should not be watched at your nearest possible convenience; after all, it is its birthday.