Considering its cultural primacy, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been remarkably ill served by the movies. The 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi, though nominally considered a classic, is the creakiest and most soporific of the early Universal horror titles, not a patch on the same year’s Frankenstein. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 rendition served up some gorgeous old-school visual effects, but didn’t exactly bring the scary. In between came the Hammer series featuring Christopher Lee as the Count—arguably the most purely entertaining of the lot, in part because those films diverge so widely from Stoker’s novel. None of them, however, can match, for pure eeriness, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, a silent adaptation so unauthorized (with all names changed in a futile effort to avoid a lawsuit) that it narrowly escaped having every single copy destroyed. Painstakingly restored by the Murnau Foundation, the film is now available as a two-disc Blu-ray set from Kino, offering a choice of intertitles in English or the original German (with optional English subtitles).
Choice of disc does make a difference here, as Murnau’s film is unusually text-heavy, in keeping with the novel’s epistolary format. Then again, the story is now so familiar as to require little exposition. Here, the hero, Jonathan Harker, has been renamed Thomas Hutter (Gustav V. Wangenheim), and his wife, Mina, has become Ellen (Greta Schröder). Sent by his employer to conduct business with a certain Count Orlok (Max Schreck) in the Carpathian Mountains, Hutter is alarmed to find that his host, who initially looks only slightly odd, has a taste for human blood. Before long, Orlok is revealed as the undead Nosferatu and heads by ship to Germany, along with a half-dozen coffins filled with his native soil. Meanwhile, Hutter’s employer—Knock (Alexander Granach), the Renfield analogue—goes batshit insane, while Ellen, staying with relatives in her husband’s absence, starts feeling a strange nocturnal pull as Nosferatu slowly approaches.
Released in 1922, Nosferatu is Murnau’s earliest canonical picture, and he hadn’t yet refined the dramatic sensibility that would define later masterpieces like The Last Laugh and Sunrise. The initial 30 minutes prior to Orlok’s first appearance are slow going indeed—it’s clunky, plot-heavy, and devoid of atmosphere—as Hutter spends much of this stretch reading a book about “vampyres” he finds in a hotel room, with Murnau repeatedly cutting from lengthy shots of Gothic text to brief shots of Hutter scoffing at it. (Anyone going with the German intertitles who doesn’t speak German should be prepared to have some difficulty making out the English subtitles; the onscreen text often occupies the entire frame.) Even Orlok’s initial entrance seems curiously anticlimactic, with Schreck, wearing a goofy hat that covers the tips of his ears and working his goggle-eyes, looking more like a mental patient than a malevolent entity.
Not for long, however. Orlok’s transformation into Nosferatu mostly involves removing the hat and adding some talons and fangs, plus extra height and odd movements, but it’s the stuff of nightmares all the same. He’s a thousand times freakier than any other screen Dracula, and Murnau suddenly kicks the film into Expressionist overdrive with the sequence of Nosferatu’s ocean voyage, which leaves not a single crew member alive when the ship docks in the fictional town of Wisborg. It’s singularly chilling even though none of the deaths occur onscreen. There’s something truly unholy about the sight of Nosferatu rising from his coffin completely rigid, as if propelled by an invisible board—the movie’s most iconic shot, along with that of the vampire’s shadow creeping along a wall as he climbs some stairs. A few years ago, Willem Dafoe played Max Schreck in Shadow Of The Vampire, a fictional film about the making of Nosferatu that suggested that Schreck really was a vampire, essentially playing himself in Murnau’s film. It’s a testament to both Schreck’s performance and Murnau’s genius that this scenario isn’t that hard to believe.