Stay Classy: Nosferatu

Maybe you’ve never heard of it. Maybe you’ve always wanted to see it. Or maybe you’re just tired of the new. Whatever your reason, the classics are always worth a nod. Every Friday in Stay Classy, we look some of the films that started it all and how they hold up today. So sit back while we reel through the past.

Take a minute to think of a vampire. Did you think a sparkling Robert Pattinson? Or a well-coifed Brad Pitt? Maybe you even thought of a blood-thirsty Christopher Lee. But chances are, you probably didn’t think of Max Schreck.

Before the vampire genre existed, there was Nosferatu. In 1922, F. W. Murnau directed the film that chilled audiences to the core. No gore, no sex, not even sound.

Adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu follows Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) as he buggies over to Transylvania to sell a house to Count Orlok (Schreck). Actually, it’s the house directly across the street from his own. Warned about the evils of the night, Hutter is unfazed. Even when his coach turns away at the edge of Orlok territory, Hutter ventures on and steps onto the gloomy estate of Orlok. While much modern horror aims to make us cringe, Murnau aims to make us shiver and he does so in a few ways.

The townspeople seemingly mistake vampirism as a plague sweeping their streets, but they’re actually right. Orlok is slow and sneaky, creeping up one his prey one by one. Much like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, Orlok never runs. He’s barely inching toward you, yet you know he’s going to get you.

Part of this is enhanced by Murnau’s use of light. While he may not have the rich, crimson colour of blood to play with, he artfully casts dark shadows across Orlok’s meals, particularly in one memorable scene when Orlok daintily scales the stairs toward Ellen’s (Greta Schroder) bedroom.

Orlok is frail but far from pretty, as many of the most recent vampires have been. Dressed in all black and tall and slender like a stalk of corn, his silhouette in a door frame alone is enough to set off goosebumps. He also walks like a very old man. But he definitely doesn’t have the face of a sweet, little grandpa, with his jagged teeth jutting out of his mouth and pointed ears protruding from his rounded head. Peeking around corners and through the cracks in his coffin are enough to leave the horrifying image of his face imprinted in your mind.

Without sound, these images bring the film to life and thanks to creative use of body language, characters are far from voiceless. Nosferatu speaks through widened eyes and gaping mouths, not to mention statuesque pointing of the arms. How frightening it really is when a character stops mid-action to point and stare stalk-still at the window.

But would a film like this scare us today? For most of us, not a chance. But for those few of us who are creeped out by old artifacts, maybe. Pictures of great-great-grandparents, anyone?
One thing that modern films seem to have taken from Nosferatu is the brilliant use of a score to heighten suspense. With violins, wind instruments and the plucking of upright basses, the film places crescendos and staccatos as the perfect moments, like when Orlok is about to zero in on his slumbering dinner or when panic sets in.

But with Saw 10,000 on the way, the horror of Nosferatu wouldn’t resonate today. It’d probably upset some Twihards too. But the real reason it wouldn’t take is it’s just too hauntingly clever.

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