There was a time when vampires weren’t sparkly in daylight and applied lots of hair-care products before going to school for the 150th year in a row. They were menacing beings surrounded by dark mystery and were best avoided. Of all the ones to be wary of, Dracula is the biggest… although in the case of the film Nosferatu, Dracula was best to be avoided because of the lawsuits that were filed by Bram Stoker’s estate after its release. All copies of the film were destroyed. Except, apparently, for one. This sole print was copied again and again, and over the years it’s become a cult classic. But is it really any good?
The plot is almost identical to Stoker’s Dracula, only the names were changed and the ending altered. Dracula became Count Orlok, Jonathon Harker became Thomas Hutter, Mina became Ellen, and so on. Oddly, the copy I’ve got is one of the later modified versions that has some of the dialogue cards changed and some of the names altered so Hutter is now Harker, Ellen is Mina… but Count Orlok is still Count Orlok. You’ve got to wonder why people can’t help but screw around with what’s clearly known to be a classic. Still, the alterations don’t change the story or the quality of work in this case, so let’s get on with it.
Hutter/Harker is a real go-getter of an estate agent. In fact, he’s so full of enthusiasm that he resembles a manic version of Emmet from the Lego Movie. His boss Knock/Renfield is even more happy – insanely so, in fact – because Count Orlok wants to buy a new home nearby. That means it’s up to Hutter/Harker to leave his wife and go on a business trip to get the Count’s signature on the dotted line. After a pit-stop at the local inn where the locals advise him not to continue, he ignores them and embarks on the frightful coach journey to Orlok’s castle.
He meets Orlok, who’s every bit as disturbing as you’d imagine. At dinner, Hutter/Harker cuts his thumb and the Count tries to suck it for him. Fine dining etiquette, disturbing omen of danger to come, or home-erotic moment? It doesn’t matter; Hutter/Harker wants none of it. Still, when he wakes up the next morning he’s got puncture marks on his neck. The Count signs the papers, the real-estate man begins to suspect his client is a vampire, and coffins begin to get shipped to the new homestead. Our hero tries to escape but needs hospital treatment, and the Count sets sail from Carpathia to, um, Germany.
On the boat, the sailors experience the typical Dracula joyride experience of rats and “plague”, and when the boat docks the crew have been wiped out. The townsfolk investigate while Orlok skimps out on hiring a moving van by carrying his coffin home personally. The town’s body-count rises, the locals believe there’s an epidemic of epidemic proportions, and who’s going to save them? Knock/Renfield has escaped from the local asylum and is doing his Fiddler On The Roof impression, Hutter/Harker is in pieces, and it’s down to Ellen/Mina to get the job done.
In terms of the original Dracula story, it keeps most of the significant points but jettisons several of the secondary characters and the whole of the last act. Instead of a thrilling carriage-ride race against the setting sun there’s a hurried conclusion, and when The End flashes up you’re left thinking, “What?! That’s IT?!”. But then, it’s a similar case in the Tod Browning 1931 film with Bela Lugosi too. In terms of artistic merit, it’s stunningly filmed and highly inventivean while as for the role of Count Orlok, Max Schreck is incredible and truly the stuff of nightmares.
Being a silent movie, Nosferatu may not appeal to everyone. Some of the performances are incredibly over-the-top, but then it was the early days of film and they had to make up for the lack of sound. It’s not particularly scary in any way either. But Schreck… that man really had it. He’s creepy and disturbing, while his performance is like the film: it’s moody and so effective that the impact of it stays with you. And like the film, while he may not have the razzle-dazzle of more modern versions, he’s the classic you can’t ignore.
This may not be the vampire film that has teenage girls swooning, but it was the first and is the one that the vampire fans out there – the real ones – will always be drawn to as legendary.