“Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horrors” (1922)
Horror fanatics know the history. German director F.W. Murnau’s unsanctioned silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To avoid lawsuits, the vampire’s name was changed to Count Orlok. The story is set in 1838. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is the real estate agent dispatched to Transylvania, not Jonathan Harker. He leaves behind wife named Ellen (Greta Schroeder), not a fiancé named Mina. The villagers freak out when they learn that Hutter is traveling to Count Orlok’s castle. They warn him about a werewolf in the vicinity. Remember, a vampire can transform into a bat or a wolf. A hyena seems to be standing in for the wolf. Hutter laughs at their silly superstitions.
Hutter rendezvous’ with a carriage, driven by Count Orlok (Max Schreck), whose rat-like features are mostly obscured. After arriving at the castle is when Count Orlok gets revealed to Hutter. None of this weepy, pretty boy vampires looking for true love trash. Count Orlock is terrifying. If you’ve seen most adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, you know how the story unfolds. The Count’s guest accidentally cuts himself while slicing a piece of bread and the sight of blood agitates the vampire. Then, the vampire finds the framed likeness of his guest’s love interest and begins to lust after her. Hutter realizes that his host is one of the undead. Though he is in a far off land, Ellen can sense when Count Orlok preys upon her beloved husband.
Count Orlok departs Transylvania via a schooner, feeding on the crew. The sequence was better executed in this version than in Tod Browning’s “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi. Hutter travels back to his native Wisborg by land, aware that Count Orlok is now after Ellen. Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) is the Van Helsing of this production. Knock (Alexander Granach), a stand-in for R.M. Renfield, snacking on insects in an asylum, awaits the arrival of Orlok. The deaths of the sailors on the schooner have the locals in Wisborg fearing the plague. If that wasn’t enough, Knock escapes from the asylum and runs amuck.
Ellen is metaphysically in tuned with Count Orlok and learns that only a woman “pure in heart” can vanquish a vampire. Orlok becomes mesmerized with her beauty. Ellen is aware that the evil which is Orlok must be destroyed and sends Hutter away when she can sense Orlok approaching. He enters her bedroom. His shadow reaches for her and clutches her heart. She faints and he begins to drain her. Meanwhile, Knock is captured as Hutter seeks the aid of Professor Bulwer. Orlok spends the better part of the night feeding on Ellen. Obviously, he is enjoying her and not just looking for sustenance. The sun rises while Orlok sucks the life out of her. The distraction of her beauty was his undoing as she hoped it would be. She sacrificed herself. He evaporates when touched by the sunlight. The monster is dead. Ellen lives just long to die in her husband’s arms.
Before the introduction of talkies, filmmakers had to rely primarily on the visuals to tell their stories. There are so many iconic images in this film. Almost every shot was awe-inspiring. “Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horrors,” though unofficial, was the first of the five definitive theatrical adaptations of Bram Stoker’s immortal fable. Max Schreck was succeed by Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman.
A remake, “Nosferatu the Vampyre” was released in 1979, directed by Werner Herzog, and starring Klaus Kinski. This time, the name Dracula was permitted. 2000’s “Shadow of the Vampire,” starring John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, played up on the urban legend that Schreck actually was a vampire. Too cool. Sure, it’s all hokum, but what a great premise for a fright flick.