One of the questions all horror fans and studios ask is “What’s the scariest movie ever made?” A question like that kind of serves no purpose. Fear is such a subjective thing. What terrifies or chills one person might be blasé to another. Rarely do films touted as “the scariest film in years” last past their moment.
Nosferatu is a 100 year old cinematic nightmare. Think hard about that. Between its release in 1922 and today, countless horror films have been released. Many touted as the scariest film ever made. Yet, 100 years later, we still talk about this very loose Dracula adaptation.
This lies in the fact director F.W. Murnau saturates Nosferatu with death and death imagery. The film opens with inter titles describing death and plague. The film itself documents the great plague of 1838 in Wisborg. We as an audience are about to enter a world of death and bringers of death. Even the word nosferatu gets likened to a death bird. Death comes to Wisborg on flapping wings. It is also a word we should not take likely for it is possibly an invocation of death itself. Even before he appears, Count Orlok casts a bleak shadow on the film.
Thomas Hutter, our hero, is offered the opportunity of a lifetime; travel to Transylvania to close a real estate deal that will bring him a great fortune. His enthusiasm blinds him to the fact something is off about all of this. His employer Knock seems mad. The property this Count Orlok wants across from Hutter’s home is a decrepit property. The contract presented to Hutter for the sale of property looks more like a spell than a legal document. Has Knock made a contract with a demon? Before he leaves, Hutter’s fiancée Ellen shares her concern that he shouldn’t go. He of course laughs because they live in an enlightened age. Monsters are a thing of superstition.
This young man travels to make his fortune with this Count Orlok. Mr. Hutter stops in a village where the inhabitants know that Orlok is not what he seems. They warn Hutter of the creatures wander the countryside at night. When a wolf howls, a villager tells Hutter a werewolf is loose. The werewolf we see is simply a hyena. Think about what kind of animal a hyena is though. Hyenas are scavengers by nature. They don’t kill prey. These creatures pick through the remains of the dead in a land of the dead. What need is there for a hyena if not to clear a world of corpses?
Finally we meet Count Orlok. Orlok never presents himself like the vampires we are now accustomed to seeing. Actor Max Schreck walks forward stiff as a board, hands crossed in front of him. A lot is written of the plague imagery associated with Orlock’s look. The rat teeth and bat like ears conjure images of animals known to bring plague. However, look at Orlok’s posture and movements. These are the movements of someone with rigor mortis. They seem like a corpse brought to life. This looks like a truly miserable existence.
Eventually Orlok reaches Wisborg. He walks around with a coffin looking for his new residence. He looks as if he’s staking a claim for his new territory. Once settled, he brings sickness and death anywhere he passes. This modern age now returns to the dark ages. People die of a mysterious plague, marked by two holes on the throat, left and right. A man walks around marking the plague stricken homes. Ellen, who finds a book about vampires, suspects that is what plagues Wisborg.
So why does Nosferatu still terrify us 100 years after its original release? It continues to terrify because it reaches into our fears of not just death but older nightmares as well. The idea of what a vampire was had not fully formed in film or the public consciousness yet. Tod Browning’s adaptation of Dracula was 9 years away with the image of Bela Lugosi seducing his victims. Orlok isn’t a creature that feeds into a fear of immigrants or a fear of sexual desire. This is an old evil from a time where old evils devastated countries and people. This vampire unleashes almost biblical plagues on Wisborg. He lurches through the town, as much a scavenger as the hyena seen earlier in the film. Something else that adds to the eerie nature of the film is that Orlok frequently looks into the camera. It’s as if he’s aware of witnesses to his atrocities. However, it also a reminder that these witnesses have no power to stop him.
Nosferatu is now a century old. This film centers around an ancient creature coming from “the old world” into a modern one unequipped to fight it. The film itself has become this. This ancient dread continues to bring nightmares into our modern world. May it continue to do so for another 100 years.