One Century Later, Nosferatu Might Still Be The Greatest Horror Movie of All Time


When the reader first meets him in Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic, Count Dracula is a horror. Hideous, bizarre, scuttling down castle walls and tossing bloody pouches to hissing concubines. It’s as though, left alone in his crumbling castle, the satanic high noble let himself go, and became something utterly inhuman. And ages later, with all the ruffled sleeves and goofy accents that’ve been heaped on the character, it can be easy to forget the truth: that the vampire is not to be loved. The vampire is a shadow wrapped in flesh. If it is alluring, it is only in the way that dead animals and razors are to children. 

But 100 years ago today, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu showed the world the true face of the vampire. The film brought together Dracula’s eerie allure and the legends of ancient Europe in a breathtaking gust of cinematic occultism. And a century later, the film’s taloned shadow reaches as deep into our hearts as ever.

One Century Later, Nosferatu Might Still Be The Greatest Horror Movie of All Time

On paper, what sets Nosferatu apart from other Dracula movies is that it’s not technically a Dracula movie. Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence Stoker née Balcombe, was not known for her warm and welcoming disposition, and was protective of what little money she received from the many stage adaptations of her husband’s only successful property. But these theatrical depictions were lush dinner theater, as much about Count Dracula’s ostentatious cape as his undead pallor. So when occultist producer Albin Grau tried to buy the film’s rights and turn it into an homage to the old demons of Europe, with the Count recast as a giant, glaring plague rat, Florence wasn’t having it. She turned the German weirdo down.

So what did Grau and director F. W. Murnau do? The only sensible thing: they ripped it off. As anyone can tell, Nosferatu is really just Dracula with the names changed and the plot reorganized. Even the title is a word that only exists in our vocabulary because of Dracula; while some posit it stems from the Romanian word Nesuferit, meaning ‘troublesome,’ this has no historical merit. But unlike Stoker’s novel, the Germans’ film would incorporate the less-fashionable vampire traditions of Romania and Serbia, such as the vampire as a bringer of sickness and a shepherd of rats. This was Dracula backed by hundreds of years of famine and superstition.

One Century Later, Nosferatu Might Still Be The Greatest Horror Movie of All Time

So much of the film’s power comes from the phsyical appearance of the vampire, here dubbed Graf Orlok (also the name of a cinematic grindcore band). While Stoker’s undead count was a man of bizarre physical appearance and odd behavior, Orlok is truly grotesque, his ears, fingers, and front-tooth fangs having grown to repulsive lengths in his isolation. This references the belief that the vampire was a physical phenomenon, a medical marvel with an undead body that represented the corruption of both the flesh and the spirit. The very presence of Orlok’s lopsided, unnatural frame was a harbinger of doom.

But more important than that was the vampire’s shadow. The most iconic shots of Nosferatu feature Orlok as a heap of black, stretching its long, inky fingers up staircases, through doorways, and into the pure hearts of its victims. The film laid the groundwork for the idea that the vampire was more than just a zombified bloodsucker, but a haunting presence, a flash of dusk that could drag you back into the night with it. Milk sours, roses wilt, mothers clutch babies with one hand and count rosaries with the other — in Nosferatu, death stalks the night, thirsting for evil, enshrouded in black.

One Century Later, Nosferatu Might Still Be The Greatest Horror Movie of All Time

Fun side note: it’s generally believed that Nosferatu coined the idea that sunlight irrevocably kills vampires. In Stoker’s novel, Dracula can walk around in daylight, though his powers are basically gone. But the 1922 film’s closing catharsis took this one step further, incorporating the old-world fairy-tale trope of the cock’s crow. That said, a piece in Medium notes that this raises some questions, as the film was not widely seen after its release, while the whole dust-by-daylight rule flourished under Bela Lugosi and his successors. In any event, Nosferatu did it first.

Of course, Nosferatu’s legacy has a dark side. One attendee of the film’s gala premiere – a costume party hosted at the Berlin Zoo (gotta love those Roaring Twenties) – was Julius Streicher, who would eventually become chief editor of Hitler’s hardcore anti-semitic periodical Der Stürmer. It was obvious to Streicher that Orlok was Jewish, and the journalist would later become obsessed with the concept of blood-drinking Jews. Murnau and Grau, of course, denied any such subtexts. Rewatching the film, one can understand how its engrossing visuals might arouse such mania in the mind of the sort of man who’d think that printing Hitler’s newspaper was an awesome time.

One Century Later, Nosferatu Might Still Be The Greatest Horror Movie of All Time

Unfortunately, Nosferatu was defeated before it could infect the 1920s. Florence Stoker sued the Germans, to the point where Grau’s production company filed for bankruptcy to avoid paying her. Eventually, Stoker’s widow won, too, with the majority of the copies of the film destroyed as per a court order. But according to David J. Skal’s excellent book Hollywood Gothic, soon after her victory, Florence was invited to a film showcase – which included ‘F.W. Murnau’s Dracula.’ The vampire, it seemed, was immortal after all.

A hundred years later, the shadow still looms. Robert Eggers, director of The VVitch and The Lighthouse, is rumored to be remaking the movie, while Austin rock troupe The Invincible Czars tour Alamo Drafthouses across the country with their gorgeous original score for the film (which they’re crowdfunding as an album). And while other genre trends and figureheads of fear have come and gone, the grasping claws of Nosferatu have stayed fresh in our bad dreams some ten decades since the vampire first crept from coffin to screen. After all, what is a century to one as old and hungry as the night itself?

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