F.W. Murnau’s plagiaristic screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA remains an atmospheric and groundbreaking landmark in horror cinema, despite its blatant “borrowing” from the most influential work of fright literature ever written.
The plot of NOSFERATU is ripped straight from Stoker’s novel, with a young realtor dispatched to an ancient castle in the Carpathian Mountains to complete the sale of a house in a modern city to the castle’s odd owner, a mysterious Count. The real estate man soon discovers that his client is in actuality a vampire, and is planning to move to find new sources of fresh blood to feed his insatiable thirst. Even more terrifying for the poor guy is the knowledge that the house this evil creature has just purchased is right across the street from his own, where his beloved fiancé awaits his return!
The film is lavish in its production values, making use of authentic locations and great cinematography to create a pervasive mood of dread and oppression. The legendary Count Orlok make-up worn by Max Schreck is as convincing and terrifying as any creature effects done in the eight decades since the film was released, and Schreck essays the bloodthirsty vampire with such macabre zeal that one wonders how anyone meeting Orlok would not know right away that he was a monster. Murnau enhances his titular terror’s frightening countenance with some excellent visual effects (including a scene of Orlok passing right through a closed wooden door, and the iconic shot of him rising, stiff as a board, from his coffin), and great shot composition and use of shadow. In one scene, the shadow of the vampire’s clawed hand appears on the breast of hapless heroine Ellen and clutches into a fist over her heart, the creature exercising its terrible control over her. It is the film’s most effective shot and perfectly encapsulates the sinister power of Stoker’s Dracula and his undead cinematic imitators.
Much of the tension in the film stems from the relentless race between Orlok and the hero (here called Thomas Hutter) to get to Ellen. While Hutter traverses the countryside by coach, the nosferatu preys upon the defenseless crew of the cargo ship carrying his coffin. Most film versions of DRACULA truncate or even gloss over this riveting and often frightening part of the narrative, but the entire second act of NOSFERATU centers on it. It seems likely that Murnau knew his vampire was too menacing in appearance to charm its way into the lives of its new neighbors, and opted instead to emphasize the danger they were in when it arrived and the hero’s frantic race to stop it. Whatever the director’s reason for focusing on these elements, these scenes are very tense and exciting.
One major deviation from the source material comes after Orlok arrives in his new home. Authorities read the log of the ill-fated ship’s captain and draw the conclusion that the vessel has brought the plague to their shores. When bodies begin showing up in the city, their fears appear confirmed, and the city finds itself under the type of quarantine common to Europe in the days of rampant pestilence. This mixing of vampire with disease was novel at the time the film was made, and offers a nice contrast between the scientific and superstitious views of death. It soon becomes clear that there is a vampire about (with the “Renfield” character – here called Knock – the prime suspect), but the momentary plague scare is one of the film’s more effective dramatic twists.
This version of DRACULA also has a more impactful ending than the one it is most often compared to, Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation. In that film, Professor Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker enter the cellar of the Count’s home during the day and drive a stake through his heart – off-camera. In NOSFERATU, Ellen learns from a book about vampires that only a pure young woman can bring the evil to its end, and that the girl in question must willing sacrifice herself to do so. This leads to a poignant and moving climax in which we see the both the vampire’s demise and the final toll of its murderous reign. It is a somber, powerful ending befitting such a bleak and atmospheric film.
Modern audiences may find it difficult to be drawn into NOSFERATU, in the same way they have trouble with any silent film. The acting is expressive and overwrought, as was the style of the period, and the existing prints are not generally in the best of shape. Viewers who expect red blood, bare breasts and DAWSON’S CREEK histrionics in their vampire films are not likely to appreciate the grim, expressionistic feel of this early horror classic. Even viewed in the proper historical context, the movie has some notable flaws. There are points in the story when the vampire disappears almost completely (most notably during the plague scare and the pursuit of Knock). It is also never clear why Orlok races to civilization to get to Ellen, appears to have a hold over her before he arrives and takes up residence right across the street, yet waits several days to attack her. Further, knowing the true nature of Orlok, why doesn’t Hutter just go after him the moment it becomes apparent that he has reached the city? The “Van Helsing” character, Doctor Bulwer, is almost an afterthought in this movie. It’s debatable whether some of the minor flaws in the film are more attributable to the filmmakers or the novel that inspired them, but they are troublesome enough to keep this cinematic version of the tale from achieving perfection.
Though it is not original, NOSFERATU is the first screen version of perhaps the most enduring terror tale ever told, and it is a very good adaptation, indeed. It is a must see for vampire completists, film and horror historians, and anyone with even a passing interest in the roots of the movie monster. Its haunting imagery and pioneering techniques make it a seminal work in genre filmmaking – a movie whose powerful influence is still felt today.