Note: This is a series of 31 iconic horror film reviews I plan on doing throughout October. See the introduction post for more information and the list of films.
“Nosferatu” is a 1922 German Expressionist silent horror film notable for being the second confirmed (and earliest that still exists) film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Unfortunately, it happens to be an unauthorized adaptation of the novel so Dracula became “Count Orlok” in this film. The film has a neat bit of history, Stoker’s estate successfully sued “Nosferatu” and all copies were ordered to be destroyed. However, a single copy survived and “Nosferatu” became known as a very historic and influential horror film.
While Dracula’s name has changed, Renfield is known as “Knock,” and vampires are referred to as “nosferatu,” the film does pretty much follow the usual “Dracula” story. As usual, Dracula…I mean Count Orlok is looking to move from Transylvania and hires someone (Hutter) to come to his hometown and find him a new home in Germany (instead of England like in “Dracula”). Hutter visits Orlok’s castle and it isn’t long before he suspects something is a bit “off” about his new client. Orlok signs off on his new property and leaves for Germany, where not surprisingly a “plague” starts. You probably already know the rest of the story.
“Nosferatu” is much better than the first film I watched this month, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and I would say it is very comparable quality to “Dracula” (just in different ways). While “Dr. Caligari” had a very strange style and made the silent film aspect even tougher to watch due to giving you way too much time to read the dialogue, “Nosferatu” isn’t nearly as weird or unbearable. The film gives you enough time to read the text but doesn’t make you sit around and wait for it to disappear. “Nosferatu” is also much better acted and while still not particularly scary, I can at least consider it a proper horror film. While today’s audiences won’t be scared, I can at least imagine that its original audience would have been terrified.
“Nosferatu” does a lot of things right. While it can be a bit tedious at times and even a little too long (it runs 94 minutes while most of these early horror films clock in around 75 minutes), the filmmaking is very good especially for its time. Orlok is way creepier than Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula.” I know that’s probably heresy to write but even though Lugosi’s acting is great, its true. Lugosi’s “Dracula” is basically just a guy in a cape who stares a lot. Orlok is a very well-designed creature with unique features like extremely long fingers, scary fangs, and pointed ears. If you put the character exactly as he looked in this film into a movie today with more modern horror techniques, it would probably scare me quite a bit. Meanwhile, Lugosi’s “Dracula” would look like a person in a cheap Halloween costume (and his film was made almost a decade later!).
Like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “Nosferatu” has a great orchestral score which adds to the mood. I really didn’t expect to like these early film scores, I figured they would be boring and nothing like the epic ones from today. However, this one is actually competitive with today’s film soundtracks. The video quality is also surprisingly good on the copy I watched. I have no idea how a film with just one surviving copy still looks so good (compared to other movies from the era) but it does.
Between “Dracula” and “Nosferatu,” it’s hard to find a clear winner. I liked certain aspects of both films. My “Dracula” review will be going up tomorrow so you can read my thoughts on what that film did better then. I think “Nosferatu” nailed the design of the monster better, has a better score, and moves at a faster pace than “Dracula” (more stuff seems to happen at least at the start, it does seem to drag a bit in the middle). However, the film does spend a bit too much time in Transylvania (while “Dracula” does the opposite and spends too much time in England when Van Helsing probably should have been smart enough to drive a stake through his heart within minutes of meeting him). The sets are also nowhere near as grand as they were in “Dracula.” Acting is basically even since both films have some very fine performances (and Max Shrek compares very favorably to Bela Lugosi’s take on the character). The lack of a Van Helsing type character in this film is a bit of a bummer though.
Since I can’t really pick a winner between “Nosferatu” and “Dracula,” I would just recommend to watch them both (though preferably not on back-to-back days like I did, you might get a bit sick of the story). Both are very solid films that don’t exactly hold up as scary films, but do hold up in terms of good filmmaking. All horror fans interested in the history of the genre (and who don’t mind not being super scared by a film) should definitely watch both.