The sight of Max Schreck's Count Orlock is enough to send a shiver up my spine. I can say, without a doubt, that Schreck's interpretation of Bram Stoker's infamous "Dracula" represents one of the cinema's most chilling versions of the vampire – and this movie was made eight decades ago! Nosferatu is not a scary movie in the conventional sense of the word. It won't cause viewers to look under their beds or peer into their closets before turning out the lights. But it drips atmosphere and is wonderfully hypnotic and involving in the way that only a silent film can be. Admittedly, there aren't many silent films in my Top 100 (you don't need more than one hand to count the number), but to not cite this picture would be criminal. In one way or another, I have been interested in Nosferatu since I was about eight years old. And, while the nature of my fascination has changed over the years, the movie's power to stir my imagination has not diminished. I consider this to be the best of the German expressionist silent films, the best of the silent horror movies, and one of the most memorable features to arrive on the scene in the pre-talkie era. The movie was re-made by Werner Herzog in 1979, and, while there are many areas in which the later film is superior to the original, it lacks the stature and full eerie power of its inspiration. Also, for those looking to have a little fun with the behind-the-scenes "mythology" of the movie, there's Shadow of the Vampire, which purports to tell the "true" story of how Nosferatu came into being and who Max Schreck really was.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Nosferatu opens in Breman, Germany by introducing us to estate agent Thomas Hutter (Jonathan Harker in Stoker's novel, played by Gustav von Wangenheim) and his young wife, Ellen (Stoker's Mina, played by Greta Schröder). Hutter is about to embark on a journey to the Carpathian Mountains in order to sell a Bremen house to the mysterious Count Orlock (Max Schreck). Superstitious natives warn Hutter not to travel to the Count's castle, but greed overcomes caution. Once there, after completing the transaction, Hutter discovers Orlock's true nature - that he is a creature of the night who drinks blood and sleeps in a coffin - and nearly doesn't survive the ordeal. The Count, however, loses interest in Hutter once he sees a picture of the man's wife, and, as he makes the passage to Germany via boat, he prepares to bring his powers to bear upon her.
As vampire movies go, few are more memorable than Nosferatu, which is not only the first screen version of Dracula, but, in some ways, remains the best. Unlike many of his predecessors who dabbled in the vampire genre, F.W. Murnau was a craftsman, and the care he lavished upon this production is evident in each shot and every scene. Nosferatu is often used as the poster child of the German expressionist wave of motion pictures. Atmosphere and visual composition represent two of the movie's most prominent features. Murnau carefully planned every shot in the film - nothing is left to chance, from the placement of a mirror to the point on the screen in which characters enter and exit a scene. Alongside The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, few motion pictures have had a more profound impact upon an entire genre than Nosferatu has had upon the legion of horror movies that trailed in its wake.
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