The year was 1922. The widow of Bram Stoker, who had written the seminal vampire book Nosferatu, was still alive and still held the copyright. So when F.W. Murnau decided to make the very first film about—and many people’s first introduction to—Count Dracula, he had to change the name to Count Orlok. And he was still sued and the production company went bankrupt.
A few other details were changed, but on the whole Nosferatu is a close and entertaining rendition of the story. The most glaring aspect of it is, of course, the fact that it was made in an entirely different era—it’s the oldest movie we’ve yet looked at in this column. It’s black and white and looks like faux-black-and-white movies, as if it were mocking itself in every frame with exaggerated motions and the occasional shot of a carriage rolling away down a hill sped up five or six times, almost hilariously.
It’s also silent except for a score, but the original score was lost and the one we have now is a reconstruction. A lot of composers have made their own scores for the movie for that reason. The one I heard when I watched it was a kind of annoying series of flutes and trumpets that only added to the carnival-like quality of some scenes.
Dialogue is in written titles. Time of day is in tints of the film (at least one scene seems like it’s implied to be night by the fact that it’s blue, but the shadows make it look more like day). Expressions are grotesque. But for that, there is enough in the movie to draw you in and make you believe in it, even if just a little. I found nothing at all scary in Nosferatu himself, who opens the conversation with the poor real estate agent who visits him in his castle by licking some blood from his cut, until one scene when the agent opens his bedroom door in the night and only sees the pale face of the vampire peering out at him behind it. At the same moment his wife back in Germany is rising in a trance out of her bed to walk on her railing in her flowing white dress, arms outstretched. Very creepy.
A bit of magic accompanies Nosferatu as well, but it’s of the unconvincing type again. In one scene he rises out of a trapdoor in a ship’s deck. A covering is invisibly pulled off of it in six or seven steps, like very bad stop motion. It made me laugh.
But on the whole, a pretty good introduction of vampires to the world.