“The Marks of a Vampire”*

         To really understand the significant impact that F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu has had on global cinema, one would have to know that the film has inspired dozens of other vampire movies. To see Nosferatu is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself. This is the story based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula before it was buried alive in clichés, cartoons, television shows and jokes. The film becomes a reality within itself and makes the film really believe in vampires.

         Max Schreck, who plays Graf Orlok the vampire, avoids some of the theatrics that others have like, Bela Lagosi, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman. The character of the vampire should become more like a man dealt with a dread curse rather than a flamboyant actor.

         Schreck plays the count more like an animal than a human being; the art direction by Murnau's collaborator, Albin Grau, gives him bat ears, claw-like nails and fangs that are in the middle of his mouth like a rodent's, instead of on the sides like on a Halloween mask.

         During Hutter, the protagonist’s trip to Orlok's lair in the Carpathian Mountains, Murnau's images foretell doom. In an inn, all of the customers fall silent when Hutter mentions Orlok's name. Outside, horses bolt and run, and a hyena snarls before slinking away. At Hutter's bedside, he finds a book that explains vampire lore: they must sleep, he learns, in earth from the graveyards of the Black Death.

         Hutter's hired coach refuses to take him onto Orlok's estate. The count sends his own coach, which travels in fast-motion, as does his servant, who scurries like a rat. Hutter is still laughing at warnings of vampirism, but his laugh fades at dinner, when he cuts himself with a bread knife and the count seems unhealthily interested in “Blood--your beautiful blood!”

         Two of the key sequences in the film follow; both are montages in which simultaneous events are intercut; a technique that is used very often in global cinema today. Murnau is credited with helping to introduce the montage, and here we see Orlok advancing on Hutter while, in Bremen, his wife, Ellen, sleepwalks and cries out a warning that causes the vampire to turn away. Later, after Hutter realizes his danger, he escapes from the castle and races back to Bremen by coach, while Orlok travels by sea, and Murnau intercuts the coach with shipboard events and Ellen restlessly waiting.

         The shots on the ship are the ones everyone remembers. The cargo is a stack of coffins, all filled with earth (from the nourishing graveyards of the plague). Crewmembers sicken and die. A brave mate goes below with a hatchet to open a coffin, and rats come tumbling out. Then Count Orlok raises straight up, stiff and eerie, from one of the coffins, in a shot that was as frightening and famous in its time as the rotating head in The Exorcist. The ship arrives in port with its crew dead, and the hatch opens by itself.

         Murnau's special effects add to the disquieting atmosphere: the fast motion of Orlok's servant, the disappearance of the phantom coach, the manifestation of the count out of thin air, the use of a photographic negative to give us white trees against a black sky. Nosferatu is a true example of the silent film as an art form and it has paved the way for many other horror and science fiction films, such as “Shadow of the Vampire,” Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” the “Harry Potter series” and “The Lord of the Rings series.” I was fascinated by the eerie way the vampire creeps around corners rather than jumping out of the corner and just out right killing. Most of the film is shot in shadow, therefore giving the ever so loved attribute to a good horror film: anticipation.

Derek Owen

Table of Contents