On this day in 1921, director F.W. Murnau unleashed what continues to be one of horror’s most influential and enduring films: Nosferatu. The film is nearly 100 years old at this point – it was released in Germany in 1922, but not brought to the United States for another seven years – but it is still cited as one of the granddaddies of horror. It still impresses now: it is not merely some “Sure, I get why this was good back then, but it certainly hasn’t aged well” piece of cinema.
It’s a black and white silent film, made in Germany in the 1920s, and it was a rip off of one of the most popular pieces of literature in the world, yet Nosferatu still manages to hold its place as one of the kings of vampire cinema. Even Dracula, the official film adaptation of the novel on which Nosferatu is based, was generally seen as inferior and has not aged as gracefully as Murnau’s masterpiece.
So what gives? In honor of Nosferatu‘s near-centennial anniversary, we’re going to take a look at why the film works so well and how it continues to influence horror long after its initial release. It can be hard to remember that Murnau was essentially making up the rules as he went, and his work is still viewed as a pretty standard “how to” for horror cinema. Last year, we gave a retrospective on Nosferatu; check it out here if you want a refresher on the basics of the film.
Pale Shadows and Ghostly Dreams
German expressionism, the film style that took off with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921) and continues to influence filmmakers like Tim Burton, William Friedkin, Guillermo del Toro, and others, is tailor-made to tell horrific stories – especially in the silent film era. The genre’s adherence to portraying emotion, rather than definitive reality, means that a lurid horror tale like Dracula is an ideal story to tell with the over the top style.
Expressionism in cinema makes use of heavy shadows, overwhelming and monumental size (especially in buildings), and a strict sense of timing in order to build up a sense of dread in the audience. One of Nosferatu‘s most iconic scenes is the shot at the top of the stairs, where Count Orlok (the renamed Dracula – the film never obtained the rights to the novel and had to change character names) casts a massive shadow on the wall. His inhuman posture, his claw-like fingers, the massive contrast of the shadow on the wall as he stalks his prey – the scene may just be the most definitive example you can give if someone were to ask what German Expressionist film is.
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Compare this to something like Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, who practically looks like someone ripped that shadow off the wall and slapped a wig on it. The best horror loves to capitalize on the use of shadow – fear of the unknown is one of our most basic. By leaving stark shadows in the corners of the screen, the audience is left wondering what might be lurking there. Expressionism brings that a step further by bringing those massive shadows to the center of the screen, inviting the horrors in and bringing them front and center.
The Exorcist is also cited as a classic in horror circles, and it took the German Expressionist template and ran with it – just look at the cover. A massive house, stark shadows, and an otherworldly light shining down, cloaking the central figure in total shadow. The powers that lurk in that house are far beyond his capabilities, just as the powers of Count Orlok are far superior for the unsuspecting population to handle.
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Ari Aster’s Hereditary, James Wan’s Insidious – they all draw heavy inspiration from this cinematic style popularized by Murnau and his contemporaries. The original illustrations featured in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are also heavily influenced by the Expressionistic style. And it isn’t just horror that draws from it. Film noir is identified with practically the same style indicators, and several comic book films that draw from the noir style, like Sin City or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, also borrow heavily from the shadowy monstrosities of urban settings.
The Land of Robbers and Ghosts
Another revolutionary aspects of Nosferatu comes from its use of multiple types of settings. Due to limitations in film technology, many films from this time period relied solely on sets created in studios – this gave directors and everyone else involved total control over finicky details like lighting and weather options that are much more manageable with modern technology. Nosferatu definitely has its fair share of studio sets, but it also brought many other concepts into its storytelling technique, helping to contribute to its otherworldly atmosphere.
Orlok‘s castle is one of the standouts in the film, but Murnau used all sorts of techniques to help bring his settings to life. The castle itself is classic Expressionism, with its massive stone pillars and over exaggerated shadows. Likewise with many of the interior houses of the village which Orlok later terrorizes. Murnau also used actual location scouting for many exterior shots (somewhat of a rarity at this early age in cinema), stop motion animation, and miniature photography. Murnau is even credited as one of the original inventors of the montage with his work on Nosferatu – multiple scenes utilize the technique with metronomic precision. All of these techniques would make Nosferatu – especially for the time period – one of the most technically astounding pieces of cinema out there.
And that’s without even mentioning the work done to bring Count Orlok, played by Max Schreck, to life. Schreck had quite a career in German silent cinema, but his name would probably be mostly forgotten if not for his ability to embody this character with such a sinister air. Orlok is a far cry from suave, sexy, seductive vampires that we are used to seeing – he is animalistic and terrifying, his aristocratic nature doing nothing to hide the fact that he is a literal monster. Again, look to The Babadook as a film that draws creature design from Nosferatu. The Descent, Pan’s Labyrinth, even the tales of Slenderman can all chalk up some of their creature design inspiration to Count Orlok.
Such a Beautiful Neck
It takes an awful lot for a film to hold up after almost 100 years, but Nosferatu still manages to do so in spades. Even watching it through a modern film perspective, it still manages to achieve almost everything it set out to do on its initial release. Rotten Tomatoes lists its critical reception at 97 percent positive, and writes that the film is “One of the silent era’s most influential masterpieces… [Nosferatu] set the template for the horror films that followed.” It is still doing so today.
Even films that do not draw directly from Nosferatu‘s style owe it some gratitude for helping to define the horror genre. Film critic Roger Ebert writes that, even today, the film “remains effective: It doesn’t scare us, but it haunts us. It shows not that vampires can jump out of shadows, but that evil can grow there, nourished on death. … In a sense, Murnau’s film is about all of the things we worry about at 3 in the morning–cancer, war, disease, madness. It suggests these dark fears in the very style of its visuals.”
Think about some of the most effective horror films you’ve seen – classics like Psycho, The Shining, or The Thing, or more modern fare like Get Out, A Quiet Place, or The Witch. All these films use their stylistic choices to help cement their monsters into the shadowy corners of our brains. And that’s regardless of if the movie features literal, flesh-and-blood monsters or figurative ones (although most successful horror balances both).
If you’ve never seen Nosferatu, what are you waiting for? The film’s in the public domain and can be watched in its entirety on YouTube. All horror fans owe it to themselves to see where so many films of their favorite genre come from and draw their inspiration from. What are your thoughts on Nosferatu? Let us know on Twitter, in the official NOFS subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club. Finally, keep your eyes peeled – there’s a remake reportedly on the way from director Robert Eggers and starring Anya Taylor-Joy (both from The Witch), though details are still scarce.