Horror classic Nosferatu (1922) recently turned 100 years old – a milestone most films have yet to reach. I recently watched this centennial film in all its glory on Amazon Prime, making it the oldest movie I’ve ever watched. But as a 24-year-old film enthusiast indoctrinated into films by superheroes, CGI and animation, how does Nosferatu rate? Do the grainy colour-changing textures of the film affect its enjoyment? Does the atmospheric orchestral score compensate for the film’s lack of dialogue? Most importantly, does the film’s creepy atmosphere hold up? Well, when it comes to film, age is just a number, because I still thoroughly enjoyed Nosferatu.
I can see why Nosferatu is considered to be the origin of horror and vampires. It was made in the wake of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, and plays on the real fears of widespread disease and death. Nosferatu’s arrival to civilisation is as allegorical as it is literal. He brings fear, death and disease and disrupts the safety and security of a an otherwise stable society. It’s an interesting take on Bram Stoker’s original Dracula story, except the titular antagonist is much more dehumanised in this film. He’s permanently hunched, has pointy ears, freakishly long fingers, two sharp front teeth, and a pair of haunting, black eyes. His movements too, are ominously slow, giving the impression that this is no human, but a creature of the night. You can always feel his presence throughout the film even when he’s not on screen, simply by the effect he has on people and through the film’s atmosphere. If anything, the film’s grainy look adds to the creepy, claustrophobic feeling it thrives on. I thought it was interesting that the version I watched used different washes to indicate times of day – yellow and pink to indicate daytime, and green and blue indicating night. Even the vampiric descriptions in the book protagonist Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) reads are menacingly beautiful – describing the vampire in a way that forebodes Nosferatu’s presence.
The score does a perceptive job of creating the film’s creepy atmosphere. Depending on its intensity, it is a key indicator of the mood in each scene. When Hutter is enjoying time with his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), the score is somber and peaceful. But when there is any mention of the supernatural, or when Hutter is travelling up a rocky road towards Count Orlok/Nosferatu’s castle, the score is much more ominous and intimidating. It gives an indication that something sinister is coming, and that something is a hunched, bloodthirsty vampire. The lighting of this film also enhances its atmosphere. From the use of a negative filter to convey the eeriness of Hutter’s journey, to the iconic shots of Nosferatu’s looming shadow, these simple effects remain genuinely creepy a century on.
Nosferatu still holds up not just because of its score and minimal effects to create its ominous atmosphere, but also by the themes of death and disease it conveys. There hasn’t been much in terms of remakes or reboots in the last century, aside from Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre, and Shadow of the Vampire (2000) which was a fictionalised account of the making of the original. The 1979 remake didn’t particularly resonate with me, with it’s wooden acting, poor writing, and severe lack of tension. Willem Dafoe as Max Shreck/Nosferatu in Shadow of the Vampire does however sound appealing. Nonetheless, the influence of the original has disseminated throughout the horror genre. Travelling a long, eerie, mountainous road to an isolated location to create a sense of foreboding can be seen in films like The Shining (1980) and Evil Dead (1981), and even Nosferatu’s silent, predator-stalking-prey stance can be attributed in slashers like Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). The Lighthouse (2019) and The Northman (2022) director Robert Eggers is writing and directing a remake of Nosferatu, with Pennywise himself Bill Skarsgård set to portray the titular role and Anya-Taylor Joy in an unknown role. If there was any filmmaker today who could adapt the atmosphere of the original Nosferatu for a modern audience, it would be Eggers; and I’m very much looking forward to it.