Dig Up the Roots of Horror with ‘Nosferatu’

We already have an entry for today’s 31 Days of Horror, but we couldn’t resist profiling this classic horror film for this week’s Old Ass Movies.
By  · Published on October 19th, 2008

Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (1922)

There is something obviously other-worldly about Nosferatu, specifically about Max Schreck’s portrayal of Count Graf Orlok, but the most frightening thing about the performance is how rooted in reality it is. He’s a vampire, yes, but at his core he’s a lecherous force that fills the screen. His body is twisted and perverted, gnarling in on itself and constantly invading the personal space of the people around him.

The story is a stark interpretation of Bram Stoker’s tale. The story focuses on Hutter, a real estate agent, who’s assigned to consult with Count Orlok about purchasing a house within the village. Hutter travels to the remote castle, passing through the silent stares villager’s give him when mentioning his client and the rumors that Orlok is a vampire. After a failed attack on Hutter, he races back to the town of Bremen while Nosferatu descends on the village by ship.

Of course, here is where the iconic images of the film come into play – specifically director F.W. Murnau’s brilliant raising of Nosferatu from his coffin, pivoting impossibly from his feet as rats pour out and around the ship. The foreshadowing of violence created in the image is paid off soon enough as the ship reaches port with its crew dead. This is followed by a sequence invented by Murnau – the montage. It sets up the last act where Hutter’s wife discovers the key to destroying a vampire and the confrontation.

Watching this film is not going to scare you. It’s still possible to be disturbed – as I said before, even if Orlok wasn’t a vampire, he carries himself with the poise of a murdering rapist – but we’ve been desensitized to the kind of fear that’s evoked. In a way, Orlok is presented more like a modern zombie than a modern vampire, slowly moving, forever encroaching on our safety. It’s also easy to dismiss by modern standards and forget that it was forging new ground at the time. We tend to think of directors’ hands at the time as being tied by the youth of the medium and its machines, but Murnau managed to purposeful sculpt a piece of art bathed in dark tones punctuated by the pale visage of a monster.

You can find a hundred other films that will make you scream louder or jump higher into the air than Nosferatu, but it’s easy to see why Max Schrek, the actor playing Orlok, was thought to actually be a vampire because of how frightening his portrayal is. It may not be scary in the modern sense, but you still wouldn’t want to see Orlok crawl off the screen and into your living room. Isn’t that really all you need for a good horror flick?

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