THE MENACE IN QUESTION: The vampiric Count Orlok.
THE THREAT: Exsanguination.
FIRST APPEARANCE: Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, a 1922 German Expressionist silent film.
Okay, so maybe Nosferatu is, technically, a blatant rip-off of Dracula. Maybe the plot and core characters are the same, the names and locations just barely altered. Maybe the film was sued for copyright infringement, almost completely lost to the annals of film history, and the ensuing legal battle bankrupted its production company.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Dracula and its myriad adaptations. But I still hold Nosferatu up as one of the greatest vampire films ever made. It’s tangible proof that in different hands the same story can be vitally, viscerally different.
Tod Browning’s iconic, official adaptation of the story, made a decade later, doesn’t come close to the artistry on display in Nosferatu. Bela Lugosi was a fine Count, but Max Schreck’s is a bird of an entirely different feather.
While most vampires are sophisticated and suave, immaculately dressed in polished eveningwear with seductive charm oozing from their pores, Count Orlok is none of those things.
He’s visibly monstrous with his bat ears, rat teeth, and eerily long fingers and clawed nails. He’s awkward and unsettling, driven by compulsions and unable to pass himself off as anything but evil.
There are a time and place for the sexy vampire; you can do plenty of scary or scintillating things with the sexual aspects of blood-drinking and eternal youth. But attractive vampires have never appealed to me as much as the creepy, monstrous ones, hence my evergreen love of Nossie (and the parasitic creatures of The Strain – but that’s a story for another time).
One of the only significant changes Nosferatu made from the source material is the ending. Rather than have a group of triumphant men chase down the creature and destroy it with knives and guns, Orlok meets his death at the hands of Ellen, the Mina/Lucy stand-in. Realizing a woman who is pure of heart can distract the vampire until the sun rises, she purposefully lures our villain into a fatal trap.
Sure, the lady dies, too, but it was wholly her own choice. Ellen is no pawn in someone else’s plan, no innocent victim of the monster. She makes the heroic final stand that is so often attributed to male characters and goes out on her own terms.
What a gal.
Star Schreck reportedly remained in character throughout filming, never mingling with his costars out of costume. Nowadays, in a cinematic landscape rife with Daniel Day-Lewises and Jared Letos, character acting is something of a norm. But in the 1920s? Not so much. One can only imagine how disquieted the cast and crew must have been around Schreck.
Murnau’s stylistic filming – he timed the acting with a metronome – and inventive camera work makes for some incredibly evocative imagery. The scene where Orlok’s shadow creeps up the staircase towards his prey, arm stretching out and uncannily curving around the door frame, is iconic for a reason.
It may not be terrifying by today’s standards, but it’s a picture that sticks with you. It’s beautiful in a dark, gothic way, and is more visually interesting than 95% of most vampire flicks.
The late, great Roger Ebert included Nosferatu in his list of Great Movies and said:
“Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in clichés, jokes, TV skits, cartoons, and more than 30 other films. The film is in awe of its material. It seems to really believe in vampires. …I admire it for its artistry and ideas, its atmosphere and images… It knows none of the later tricks of the trade, like sudden threats that pop in from the side of the screen. But Nosferatu remains effective: it doesn’t scare us, but it haunts us.”
In 1979, Werner Herzog decided to pay homage to this nearly-lost classic, which he considered the greatest film to ever come out of Germany. His Nosferatu the Vampyre isn’t strictly a remake, as its characters have their original novel names restored (gone is Orlok, back is Dracula), and characters like Van Helsing appear.
But in terms of design and aesthetics, it’s very much a spiritual successor of the original. Klaus Kinski is an incredibly fine replacement for Schreck; I’ll always maintain that Kinski has one of the best, most expressive faces ever committed to celluloid. And with the ravishing Isabelle Adjani as the tragic Lucy Harker, there’s plenty of beauty to behold beyond Herzog’s evocative cinematography.
(And for those who dislike subtitles, rejoice: there’s also an English version of the movie that was filmed concurrently with the original German, so there’s no need for subtitles and no hammy dubbing to suffer through.)
You know a film has achieved iconic status when it’s parodied, and for Nosferatu that came in 2000 with Shadow of the Vampire, an unusual amalgamation of a film. It’s a dark comedy but also a serious horror? And yet it’s also a fictionalized, meta-tastic retelling of what happens behind-the-scenes of a great film?
Anyway, it all works somehow, probably thanks to the stellar cast: Willem Dafoe plays Max Schreck, with John Malkovich as director F. W. Murnau. Udo Kier (who’s played a vampire himself on more than one occasion), Cary Elwes (who hunted a vampire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and Eddie Izzard (who I’m sure has made a few jokes about vampires) round out the cast.
Again, Roger Ebert had nothing but praise:
“Dafoe embodies the Schreck of Nosferatu so uncannily that when real scenes from the silent classic are slipped into the frame, we don’t notice a difference. … Avoiding the pitfall of irony, [Shadow of the Vampire] plays the material straight, which is truly scary.”
Ironically, the film earned screenwriter Steven Katz a Bram Stoker Award (yuk yuk yuk), and Dafoe garnered an Academy Award nomination – for portraying a vampire portraying an actor portraying a vampire.
How’s that for meta?
It’s funny that a movie that was originally supposed to be completely erased has proved so enduring. In a way, it’s rather like the vampire it portrays, a little grotesque, yet still immortal.
NOSSIE IN POP CULTURE:
• Blue Öyster Cult are clearly fans, given their song “Nosferatu” on the album Spectres.
• An entire faction of vampires, the Nosferatu, in Vampire: The Masquerade were clearly designed along the original Count Orlok lines.
• Nosferatu: The Untold Origin by Louis Pecsi is a graphic novel origin story for the Count.
• Holy unexpected cameo, Batman!: Orlok appears in the episode “Graveyard Shift” of Spongebob Squarepants. Because when you think of vampires, you think of pineapples under the sea.
• Another touch of meta: the vampire Louis (Brad Pitt) goes to the movies in Interview With the Vampire and watches Nosferatu with amusement.
• And, most recently, the absolutely stellar Kiwi mockumentary film (think Parks and Recreations-meets-Dracula) What We Do in the Shadows features a character named Petyr who’s clearly the Nosferatu of the group (which also includes a punk vampire, a romantic vampire, and a Dracula-style vampire, guaranteeing that there’s a bloodsucker for everyone).