Cinema in the Park goes out this year with not only a bang, but a shudder. F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is the granddaddy of all vampire films — but don’t let that antique appellation throw you, because 81 years after its release, it remains one of most singularly creepy and enthralling movies ever made in any genre.
An unofficial — and uncredited and unauthorized — version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (see article elsewhere in this issue), Nosferatu was both an outgrowth of and a departure from the German Expressionist style of horror film that, generally speaking, started with Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Murnau himself was no stranger to the fantastic — by the time of Nosferatu, he’d already made an uncredited (and long-lost) version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Conrad Veidt and Bela Lugosi called Der Januskopf in 1920, and The Haunted Castle in 1921. But with Nosferatu, he took things to a new level, using a more mobile camera, and creating a film that was more reliant on direction than art direction.
If Murnau departed from his brother filmmakers in that regard, it was nothing compared to the liberties he took with Stoker’s undead monster (whom screenwriter Henrik Galen rechristened Orlok, fooling exactly no one, just as Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor hadn’t in Der Januskopf). And in so doing, Murnau set a precedent that would be followed by nearly every subsequent attempt at the story.
Each generation — each culture, in fact — has had a Dracula of its time and place. When Bela Lugosi stamped the role as his own, he did so in a cultivated European manner that owed as much to Rudolph Valentino as Stoker. Christopher Lee was an almost Byronic Dracula in a style that perfectly suited 1958. Frank Langella’s blow-dried Count from 1979 would have been very much at home on the floor of a disco (giving new resonance to “Stayin’ Alive”). And so it has gone. What, then, is one to make of Murnau’s repellent Orlok — an outright monster who could never pass for human in any normal society, and who grows more inhuman as the movie progresses? What indeed. Murnau’s vampire reflects his time, too — the decadent, inflation-riddled world of post-war Germany. That much is history and allegory, but it does nothing to explain away the power of the movie, especially these many years later.
Most of the classic horror films, despite their moments of frisson, are now rather … well, cozy and comfortable. There is nothing cozy about Murnau’s film — and I can’t imagine there ever will be. No one who has ever seen Nosferatu is likely to forget such remarkably unsettling moments as the high-speed carriage ride (printed in the negative!), Orlok’s bizarre jack-in-the-box coffin exit, the high-speed packing of the wagon with coffins, the image of rats scurrying from a broken coffin, and so on. And some of the film simply isn’t explicable. Some of the imagery — especially the high-speed footage — ought, by all rights, be risible — but it isn’t. It’s unsettling and otherworldly — and it sticks in the mind long after more traditional horror moments in more traditional horror films have long been forgotten.
A lot of movies get loosely tagged with the term “masterpiece”; Nosferatu actually is one. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s a must-see. If you have, it’s a film that offers new rewards on every viewing. And afterwards, go rent E. Elias Mehrige’s brilliant, shaggy, bloodsucker story Shadow of the Vampire, with John Malkovich as Murnau in an alternate-reality version of the making of Nosferatu.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke