At long last, I have been able to experience the treat of watching the 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu, an “unauthorised” adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Although I was fully aware of the influential reputation of F.W. Murnau’s silent horror film, I knew very little about it before watching it. What I could never have predicted was how brilliant this movie is, and how it redefined the experience of watching a movie. It’s interesting that a German Expressionist film made almost a century ago is 1000 times more creepy and disturbing than most of the Hollywood crap polluting theatres nowadays (I’m looking at you, Paranormal Activity).
As someone who is relatively unfamiliar with the horror paradigm, it was quite interesting and eyeopening to see both the genesis of all the quintessential horror film features as well as the classic story of Dracula be translated onto celluloid. Nosferatu follows our everyday man, Thomas Hutter, who is sent to visit the mysterious Count Orlok (actually Dracula) in Transylvania, but quickly discovers the ominous truth slithering in the Carpathian mountains. Part of the reason Nosferatu works so well is because Murnau shows how, even in the most mundane of places, there exists horror and malice, and no one is truly safe. While the overall claustrophobic feel of the story plays a big part in instigating terror, nothing can come close to the unspeakably spine-chilling and ghastly execution.
The reason why Nosferatu is driven by its execution is due to Murnau’s amalgamation of all the cinematic elements (performances, cinematography, mise-en-scene, soundtrack, etc.). As Nosferatu (played to perfection by the late great Max Schneck) ominously prowls and stalks the humans of the films, the terror and shock of the characters is effortlessly unraveled by the actors. But who can really blame them, due to the frightening products of the makeup artists, costume designers and set designers?
There are countless images from Nosferatu that are guaranteed to give anyone nightmares (picture rats flooding out of coffins and a tall vampire stalking a haunted mansion), but the most memorable of them all is the image of Nosferatu’s shadow climbing the staircase. While we’re on imagery, I should mention that the cinematography (shot in black and white on 35mm film) is quite exceptional, and not only reiterates the claustrophobic feel of the movie, but also functions as a masterclass on how to utilise juxtaposition, composition, lighting and angles in both cinematography and photography.
There’s little doubt that the juxtaposition between dialogue slides, frightening images and a haunting soundtrack is masterfully executed in Nosferatu, but there are a few flaws I can point out. While there are several shots that are inexplicably sped up, as well as messy cuts between frames, these are forgivable if you take into account that this was 1922, where Final Cut Pro didn’t exist, and editing film was ludicrously difficult to do. The biggest problem of the editing was the editor’s inability to make the scenes in the third act prior to its brilliant ending as interesting as they should have.
Although Nosferatu is a difficult film to watch due to its unflinching creepiness, that doesn’t diminish its brilliance as not only one of the best horror films, but as also one of the best films of the silent era, and possibly of all time. Out of the hundreds of films I’ve seen so far in my life, there are only 20 that are so transcendent that they are experiences in themselves, and Nosferatu proudly sits on this list. Patton Oswalt describes in his book Silver Screen Fiend how watching this film at the age of five was such a powerful psychological experience, that it made him even more curious about “the other side of that screen”. Well, I can tell you now, this has officially happened to me at age 18.