Vampires are such an iconic component to monster horror and horror in general. They’ve essentially become their own subgenre, and to think it all goes back to a single novel and historical figure (who’s still a national hero in Romania today). And while Bela Lugosi is and always will be the first person you think of when you hear Dracula, he was not the first cinematic vampire.
That honor goes to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in the 1922 German classic Nosferatu. It’s not every day that a movie turns 100 years old, let alone one as influential as this one. So in honor of its 100th anniversary, we wanted to take a look back at Nosferatu and how it influences horror even today!
Released during the peak of the German Expressionist movement, Nosferatu utilized stunning and interesting visuals in order to elicit stronger reactions. While many Hollywood films at the time presented as live theater being recorded on film, movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu were embracing shots, edits, and visuals that could only be done on film, so as to fully realize the scope of the new medium.
Max Schreck could have very easily donned his incredibly creepy look and terrified people live on stage, but there’s something about the editing that makes him seem otherworldly. It’s something that really only could have been achieved on film and via the Expressionist style.
Granted, there’s far more intense and brutal horror movies today, but at the time a creepy gaze from Count Orlok was probably the most terrifying thing any of them had ever seen. While the motion picture industry was still in its relative infancy, Nosferatu managed to scare audiences in a way that nothing else had.
Even looking back on it now, Orlok’s design is genuinely creepy. It’s easy to understand why it made such waves upon release, and why Dracula was made only 9 years later. Granted, what is scary is just as subjective as what is funny. But it would be hard to argue that Nosferatu isn’t still suspenseful, even 100 years later.
Whether or not Nosferatu is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel is something of a controversial topic. The basic premise of a vampire from Eastern Europe buying real estate to come West and having to sleep in boxes of earth from his homeland is not so subtly lifted. As is the clerk who travels to his castle and the vampire himself is the carriage driver, creeping out the clerk.
Following Bram Stoker’s death in 1912, his widow Florence Balcombe was his literary executor. And she wasn’t too pleased with the unauthorized adaptation. In a sort of hilarious attempt to make it not so obvious, the filmmakers changed character’s names (Dracula to Orlock) and even rewrote the ending so it was the rising sun that killed him in the end.
Balcombe demanded that not only the estate receive financial compensation because the movie was a hit in Germany, but she also demanded all prints be destroyed. Filing suit for copyright infringement, she won in 1925 and all prints were ordered destroyed. However, that didn’t stop prints of Nosferatu from finding their way to England and even the US in the late 1920’s.
Let’s be clear, the makers of the movie should have obtained the proper rights and made a deal with Balcombe and the Stoker estate. But in hindsight, society was probably better off for having those prints spread. We’re not excusing plagiarism or copyright infringement, just pointing out that ordering the movie be wiped from existence was a bit extreme and it’s a good thing that we can still enjoy it today.
Eventually Florence Balcombe did give permission for a stage play adaptation to be produced and performed. This of course would eventually be adapted into the 1931 Universal movie with Bela Lugosi. Balcombe lived until 1937, so she was able to see Dracula (1931) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936).
Inspiring Vampire Tropes
But of course, Nosferatu’s legacy is far more than just being a creepy horror film made 100 years ago. We see its influence even now in vampire fiction. Everything from inspiring the look of other vampires in the 1979 Salem’s Lot TV movie, What We Do in the Shadows, as well as the 1979 quasi-remake Nosferatu: The Vampyre.
In modern vampire fiction, it’s accepted as gospel that vampires burn up in the sun, and this was the first piece of vampire media to include that. It was done as a desperate measure to differentiate it from Stoker’s novel (which doesn’t feature sunlight being lethal), but now it’s so ingrained in vampire mythos that it’s hard to imagine that it was a rash decision by a screenwriter rather than a component of ancient folklore.
It may have debuted 100 years ago, but Nosferatu remains just as creepy and iconic today as it ever did. Due to the magic of digital restoration, we can enjoy it almost as it was back when it was first released, and see the very roots of modern day vampires!
What do you think of Nosferatu? What’s your favorite vampire movie? Let us know in the comments!