As part of this year’s Halloween programme, our local Picturehouse cinema The Belmont screened Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1922 horror film, Nosferatu. This is the first time that the character of Dracula had been portrayed on the silver screen, though due to the inability to secure the rights to Bram Stoker’s novel, names and locations had to be changed. Most notably Count Dracula becomes Count Orlok, and the location of the heroes moves to Germany; understandable as Murnau was German. This all has no effect on the final product because Nosferatu is tremendous.
The plot really does follow that of Dracula: estate agent Hutter travels to Transylvania to help Count Orlok purchase a property in Wisbourg where Hutter and his wife live. During Orlok's voyage across to Germany, all of the ship’s crew are mysteriously killed or disappear. Once in Wisbourg, a mysterious plague strikes the inhabitants, blamed on infected rats brought ashore by the ship that carried Orlok. Count Orlok himself makes Mrs Hutter his personal mission, ever since he noticed from a photograph that she “has a beautiful neck”!
Max Schreck is incredible as the sinister Count Orlok, certainly one of the most enigmatic and iconic portrayals of the Dracula character. I’m not sure how tall he is, but the long slim coat he wears, the bald head and the pointy ears serve to make him look even taller and even more disquieting. Shadows and lighting are used to tremendous effect, so that the audience shares the same dread that the characters do. The shadows perhaps give even Raiders of the Lost Ark a run for its money, and it is obvious where Francis Ford Coppola got his inspiration for Dracula’s menacing shadows in his 1992 film. Schreck has such an overwhelming presence that any time he is on screen, the viewer is sure that something terrible is about to happen. In this way Orlok is as ominous as more contemporary baddies such as Darth Vader or Anton Chigurh; not bad for a silent movie from the 20s.
Of course there are noticeable technical issues due to sections of the film being lost, found and restored by one way or another, but none of these issues diminish the power of the film; the music and the presence of Max Schreck make sure of that. The film is also perfectly paced, with a run time of little over 90 minutes it clips along at a fair old pace, but never feels rushed or that any important exposition scenes are cut out; I certainly didn’t have time to get bored.
In Nosferatu, Murnau created one of the most iconic horror villains ever to appear on film, and at the same time shot some of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history. These shots have been oft copied in movies and are now an accepted cinematic technique; almost a prerequisite for a horror film. A wonderfully atmospheric gothic horror with an incredible performance and evil presence from Max Schreck, Nosferatu changed the way horror was made, and also happens to be magnificent. But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.