F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is the stuff legends and nightmares and lawsuits are made of. In many ways, it’s the movies’ first true horror picture, and it is the first real vampire movie. So otherworldly and creepy is its vampire, Count Orlock (Max Schreck), that rumors persist that he was a real vampire. Indeed, that’s the central premise behind E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000), with Willem Dafoe as Schreck. The film’s lingering impact caused Werner Herzog to create a reimagining of it in 1979 as Nosferatu the Vampyre. Tobe Hooper reinvented the character of the vampire from Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot to fit the Schreck characterization in his 1979 TV film of the novel. The über-villain of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) played by Christopher Walken is named “Max Schreck.” This is all pretty amazing when you realize that the film itself only exists at all thanks to film pirates. Bram Stoker’s (you know, the guy who wrote Dracula, on which Nosferatu is based) widow successfully sued the film company for copyright infringement (it’s a barely disguised rip-off), and all prints of the film were ordered to be destroyed, which, as you can see, didn’t quite happen.
So how scary is Nosferatu today? Well, that probably depends on your definition of scary. It probably won’t make anyone run from the screening or faint from sheer terror. Some of it—especially the acting by everyone but Schreck—is even apt to garner laughs. But the cumulative effect of the film’s atmosphere—actually enhanced by its antique quality, which makes it look like it came from another world—and the look and presence of Schreck’s vampire seep into the mind as a nightmare vision that can’t be dismissed. Once seen, it’s never entirely forgotten, never shaken off—and that’s not something anyone’s apt to be saying 86 years after the fact with a movie like this week’s new horror release, Saw V.