Nosferatu: Celebrating an Icon’s 100th Birthday

Count Orlock creeps up the stairs.

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think—is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror was released in 1922 to rave reviews. Because of this film, names like F.W. Murnau and Max Shreck live on and have achieved a type of immortality along with Nosferatu. It is truly amazing that the film was not lost like many others of the silent era. According to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, 90% of all films shot prior to 1929 are lost forever. Why? Sometimes the films were unceremoniously discarded after screenings as the studios saw no further use for them. They had no idea that future generations would want to preserve them. Home video and streaming were things of the future, and film historians were not in existence yet. The volatility and flammability of the film of that era also contributed to these losses. Major studios experienced several devastating vault fires in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’60s, losing the films they sought to preserve. London after Midnight is a silent horror film that experienced this fate.

The lawsuit

Nosferatu also should not exist due to a rights lawsuit. Prana Studios did not obtain rights from Bram Stoker’s estate to adapt Dracula to film. A few minor tweaks were made…change Harker to Hutter…Dracula to Orlock, and change the location and tada—in the clear. But not really. Bram Stoker’s widow learned of the infringement and sued shortly after the grand release.

A judge ordered all copies of the film to be destroyed and Nosferatu nearly died then. One copy survived and was transported to the US. Due to an oversight, Dracula had lapsed into the public domain in the US.

Nosferatu also traveled across an ocean

Count Orlock peeps up from the ship's hold in 1922's Nosferatu.
Nosferatu traveled to America and the film was saved.

The film found fans in the US and has enjoyed several waves of popularity. It has been considered a classic since the 1960s and was remade in 1972. The film inspired another film about the making of the 1922 version of Nosferatu. Shadow of the Vampire in 2000 surmised that Max Shrek was an actual vampire wreaking havoc on the set. Musicals and cartoons have been influenced by the film.

I was fortunate to see the film with a live orchestra just prior to the pandemic. The original score was played in a concert hall while the film was projected. This experience is a unique one for modern times. The score has a tremendous influence on the impact of a scene. However, the film is just as artistic and frightening without music. It was great to see the film as it was originally intended to be experienced.

Program from a 2019 showing of Nosferatu with a live orchestra.
Just like a 1922 showing. Photo courtesy of the author.

Film historians found disturbing themes

Analysis of the film has brought about some upsetting themes.  Antisemitism is a theme that has been noted in the film by scholars. Murnau and his cast and crew were not remembered as anti-Semitic, and several Jewish people acted in the film or worked in the crew. Germans had experienced losses during the first world war, and some wanted a scapegoat to blame for their troubles. Orlock’s appearance was referenced in the anti-Semitic propaganda of the time.  Additionally, the deaths from a supposed plague after Orlock arrives in the city recall times when Jewish citizens were blamed for the spread of plagues in an age when germs and contagion were not understood. They were accused of poisoning water supplies in some areas of Europe and many were killed because of ignorance. Fear of outsiders or foreigners is another theme that presents itself in the film. Clearly, Count Orlock is very different from Hutter and the rest of the cast of characters.

The corpse-like appearance differs from most other adaptations of Dracula. The ill-fitting clothes, odd facial features, and praying mantis appearance are a far cry from Lugosi’s Dracula. Orlock’s appearance is closer to the traditional vampire or revenant of folklore. There was a time when vampires were rotting corpses returned from the grave to harass the people they once knew. Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Gary Oldman’s depictions had human appearances and could mingle with people at the opera. Orlock had to exist in the shadows.

Speaking of shadows

Count Orlock dies in the morning sunlight.
The first vampire in film who was killed by sunlight.

Count Orlock is the first film vampire to die by sunlight. In this iconic scene, his body becomes transparent and disappears as the sun’s rays hit him. This was not a part of folklore or the Dracula tale. Until 1922, vampires just didn’t like sunlight or were weakened by it. They crept around at night to be undetected and returned to their graves by morning. The death scene in Nosferatu caught on, and most vampires have been vulnerable to daylight from Christopher Lee’s character to Anne Rice’s vampires. Notable exceptions are the Twilight vampires and the Discovery of Witches vampires.

Always wear your cape. Or Not.

Unlike future versions of Dracula, Count Orlock did not wear a cape. Dracula had been a stage production, beginning in 1924. The actor donned a cape and used it to swirl and disappear into a trapdoor for effect. The cape made it to film, but other effects had been developed by then. The cape continued to be part of Dracula’s attire and remains a favorite costume at Halloween.

Take some time this Halloween and watch the film. Try to find a version with the original score for authenticity, then lean back and enjoy a film that has miraculously survived efforts to destroy it. Think about the people who watched the film when it was released and how you have something in common with those long-ago people. Maybe you will be lucky and find an orchestra showing so you can view it the way it was intended to be seen.

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Written by Sarah Sigfried

Sarah Sigfried hails from the rural mountains of Virginia. She has enjoyed horror movies and ghost stories since childhood. A mental health clinician by day, she spends her leisure time creating nightmares. She dabbles in makeup special effects and horrifies her friends and neighbors each Halloween. Sigfried is an emerging author and is an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. She dominates pub trivia on horror-related topics and especially enjoys classic horror movies and 1980’s horror comedies. She lives with her spouse and their cat, Sam in a home originally built by a family of morticians.

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