BY JACK WIGHTMAN
Since first lurking from the shadows, Vampires have endured drastic and frequent transformations. Some depictions include rebellious teens, sexy playboys, addicts, apathetic rockstars, twinkling teen heartthrobs, neighbours from hell, fodder for Lincoln, strippers, interviewees and so many more. These renditions are, for the most part, painful and draining. Nosferatu is simply the beginning. The origin of of one of movies favourite and most enduring monsters. In this macabre tale, Hutter, an employee for a real estate agent, travels to aid Count Orlok in acquiring new property, but the recluse is something otherworldly and evil.
The narrative of NOSFERATU: A SYMPHONY OF TERROR (1922) is essentially Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula with minor incidents and names changed to avoid a legal battle (which occurred anyway). However, Stoker’s narrative is elegantly unnerving and most importantly, visual. It is a perfect tale relying heavily on image which Murnau exploits magnificently. The images of Nosferatu are chilling and otherworldly, huge shadows intrude across the frame, hiding Nosferatu’s approach until emerging like a spectre. Each engulfing shadow never carries impending doom, and simple shots of rats or the procession of coffins of plague victims reinstate the bleakness Murnau’s vision.
Murnau uses some ingenious camera trickery to reinstate the otherworldly essence of Nosferatu. Under cranking shows the demon carriage travel towards the crooked castle at extraordinary speeds, and stop-motion allows coffins to inexplicably arrange themselves. These tricks are hardly slick by today’s standards but are worthwhile additions to create atmosphere, which is intensely ominous. The silence of Nosferatu is reminiscent of a nightmare, characters are ever more helpless when calling seems futile, isolation is increased dramatically by huge voids sound would otherwise fill. It is a lonely world following all the rules of a terrible dream in which escape is impossible. Nosferatu may not be classically scary, it lacks the bag of tricks, but it is eternally haunting. It lurks in the recess of the brain, emerging moments before sleep. It lives in good company, its neighbours are Eraserhead and The Shining.
It is a great refreshment to view Nosferatu. In the grandest sense, it is a pure vampire movie – Nosferatu sleeps blissfully in a coffin, bloodless victims are left with two neck punctures and so on. However, it is free from the cliches which drive a wooden stake immediately through the heart of modern interpretations. It is not an interoperation, it is simple vampires at the most organic. One uniqueness is evident – Max Schreck’s rendition of the vampirism (Schreck is interestingly German for Terror…). No actor has embodied the evil or unnaturalness of a bloodsucker quite like Schreck. Far from sexy or even human, Schreck plays Nosferatu as a creature, moving stiffly like a corpse in the grip of rigour mortis, but gliding like a ghost. Schreck is unforgettable in this role, the bat ears, rodent teeth and nine inch nails looming in silhouette is fear incarnate.
Murnau’s choice of name change from Dracula to Nosferatu is a fortuitous one. Nosferatu conjures nightmares, a wholly unholy word as sharp as fangs and aptly gothic. A movie legend has arisen.
The ship unknowingly transporting Nosferatu has succumbed to plague. One of the few remaining sailors searches below deck amongst large boxes for the source of the rats. One box is smashed open, hordes of rats pour out in a diseased procession. Then, from his slumber, Nosferatu raises from a coffin in a gravity defying move. The wide eyes and sharp teeth glistening. Nosferatu commands only nine minutes of screen time, but each second is iconic and chilling.
Jack Wightman is a script writer, film reviewer and budding film director. Jack blogs over at 1001: A Film Odyssey.