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If you’re a fan of silent horror flicks, odds are you’ve already seen F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. And if you’re not, odds are you don’t want to. Those who think they dislike horror movies because they grew up with Freddy and Jason, however, are advised to check it out and see how moody and beautiful horror can be. Nosferatu almost entirely lacks overt violence, instead using dramatic light and shadow (in addition to some impressive—but admittedly a little dated—special effects) to convey its terror. The result is, as the original German subtitle suggests, “A Symphony of Horror.”
The plot of Nosferatu is essentially a direct steal of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (to the point that Stoker’s widow actually sued to keep the film from being distributed), and English translations, in fact, often simply change the characters’ names back to those found in the novel. (It came out nine years before Universal’s iconic version, however, and thus lacks the cape and slicked-back hair that Bela Lugosi made synonymous with the character.) It stars Max Schreck as Count Orlok/Dracula, a Romanian count who decides to buy a home in Bremen, Germany. Everywhere he goes, a mysterious “plague” seems to attack the populace, who die with suspicious-looking bite marks on their throats. Gustav von Wangenheim costars as Thomas Hutter/Jonathon Harker, the realtor in the unfortunate position of making the aforementioned transaction, and Greta Schroeder appears as his wife Ellen Hutter/Mina Harker.
The real stars here, though, are the lighting and effects. This film is often cited as a prime example of German expressionism, a style exemplified by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (see that one sometime and you’ll finally understand Rob Zombie’s music video for “Living Dead Girl”). Unlike Caligari, however, Nosferatu was filmed entirely on location, which gives its nightmare a chance to break out of the dream world and into reality. Seeing Orlok’s coffin magically build a horse cart around itself, or Orlok suddenly stand up in his coffin without moving his body is all the more disturbing when shown against a realistic backdrop. Murnau tracked down some fantastic-looking castles, inns, and creepy staircases in which to set the film.
One word of warning: the most common DVD of this film has it set to the most horribly inappropriate music you’re likely to ever hear. It’s not bad music per se (I noticed some Dvorak in there), but it has a tendency to be loud and ominous in the calm, relaxing scenes, and vice-versa. You might be better off buying a pipe organ and playing your own music (if, um, you’re into that sort of thing.)
In any case, Nosferatu goes out highly recommended if you’re a horror fan, or if you’re looking for something ironic to be playing on your TV during your next Halloween party. Enjoy.