Film: Nosferatu

"Mortal terror reigned
Sickness now, then horrible death
Only Lucy knew the truth
And at her window —

Nosferatu (rarely used full title: Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror) is the first known "vampire" movie, released in 1922. Director Friedrich W. Murnau cast Max Schreck as Count Orlok, with the veteran German character actor wearing a costume that left him bald, with huge pointed ears and long sharp fangs... In short, one of the most frightening characters in film history. This movie is also notable for spawning the idea that vampires can be killed by sunlight.

The myth that Nosferatu was Schreck's only role is untrue; he appeared in over 20 films and a number of stage roles, all in Germany. The idea was perpetuated by the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, which portrayed Schreck as an actual vampire.

Nosferatu was originally intended to be a direct adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but Stoker's widow, who owned the copyright, refused permission. So Murnau and his team changed the characters' names, note  simplified the plot, and tried to pass Nosferatu off as an original story.

It didn't work. The film company that produced Nosferatu was forced to declare bankruptcy to avoid paying Bram Stoker's estate for copyright infringement. All copies of this film were supposed to be destroyed because of the infringement, but a Keep Circulating the Tapes mentality among fans of the film kept it from being lost. (Pre-digital movie piracy? It's Older than You Think.) We, too, can see the greatness of FW Murnau's vision.

This movie is in the public domain and may be viewed in its entirety at YouTube. A re-scored version with Progressive Rock music by Isaac Baranoff and Funny Aminals can be viewed online.

Also notable under this title: Werner Herzog's 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre, a re-adaptation of Dracula heavily influenced by the Murnau film's iconic visuals and streamlined plot. Klaus Kinski played the title role (now back to the name "Dracula,") and it's generally considered to be almost as good as the original. Some would even call it better. Kinski would return for the 1988 sort-of-sequel Nosferatu in Venice.

This film contains the tropes:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Despite the fact that all the names have been changed and the plot's been simplified, this is probably the best Dracula adaptation out there.
  • Animal Motifs: Orlok has a very subtle yet obvious in hindsight connection with rats and, through them, the plague. His fangs are rat-like incisors rather than the elongated canines usually used for vampires, his pointed nose and thin face gives him a rodent quality to his facial features, even his taloned hands call to minds the grasping paws of a giant rat.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Count Orlok (Graf Orlok in the original German.)
  • Art Shift: A striking one. As Hutter's coach approaches Orlok's castle, one shot of the coach on the road is shown in photographic negative, likely to symbolize Hutter's entrance into another world.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The etymology of the word "nosferatu" is unclear. This movie isn't the first to use it (Stoker's novel referenced it first,) but the usual origin (the Romanian word for "vampire") is false.
    • The two most probable etymologies are a corruption of the Romanian "Necuratu," meaning "unclean spirit," or Greek "Nosophoros," meaning "bringer of plague."
  • Bald of Evil: Orlok.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: Used by Hutter to escape Orlok's castle.
  • Breaking and Bloodsucking: Ellen's plan to destroy Orlok is to wait for him to attack her in her bed and allow him to slowly feed to distract him from the lethal sunrise.
  • Captain's Log: The people of Wisborg consult the ghost ship's log in an effort to figure out what happened.
  • Creepy Long Fingers: Orlok, as part of his defining appearance.
  • Cue the Sun
  • Downer Ending: In the Herzog remake Lucy is dead, Van Helsing is arrested for killing Dracula and Harker is now a vampire who will presumably continue to spread death and disease. Lucy's sacrifice ultimately meant nothing.
  • German Expressionism
  • Ghost Ship: The one Orlok takes to Germany becomes one of these when it pulls into port. Because of Orlok.
  • Ghostly Glide: How Orlok moves.
  • Happily Married: Hutter and Ellen. Mind you, they are newlyweds.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Ellen deliberately lets Orlok feed on her to distract him until sunrise.
  • Kill 'em All: Orlok kills everyone on the ship.
  • Lean and Mean: Orlok is skeletally thin.
  • Looks Like Orlok: Trope Namer. Quite a contrast to the suave, attractive vampires that make up so much of the rest of vampire fiction.
  • Love Transcends Spacetime: At the very moment when Orlok is readying himself to feed, fatally, on Hutter, Ellen has a sudden panic attack — which somehow makes the vampire back down and leave Hutter alive.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: The "werewolf" that we see roaming around outside the inn Hutter stops at for the night is actually a hyena.
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Hutter tells his wife that he is heading to "the country of thieves and ghosts" - and he seems awfully excited about it too!
  • Never Work with Children or Animals: One scene has Orlok loading up a horse-drawn cart with coffins and then he gets inside one at the top of the coffin stack. Watch as the lid of the coffin moves up to Orlok's coffin (via stop-motion photography) — the horses change position a couple of times. It doesn't qualify as a Special Effects Failure given the film was made in the early days of cinema.
  • Only the Pure of Heart: Only an innocent young woman's willing sacrifice of her blood to distract the vampire from the coming dawn can destroy him.
    • The animated Swiss parody "Nosferatu Tango" drives a stake into this trope: The innocent young woman took Brand ZZZZZ sleeping pills, which also lay Nosferatu to (eternal) sleep when the morning comes.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: As noted above, this film originated the idea that vampires burn in sunlight. Also, Schreck's vampire is rather uniquely portrayed as a rat-like monster and the personification of pestilence, as well as having a considerable semblance to some kind of ghost — the numerous scenes where Orlok seems to materialise or dematerialise at will (such as when carrying his coffin into his new lair,) as well as the famous sequence where Orlok seems to sneak into Hutter's home as a disembodied shadow.
  • Picked Flowers Are Dead: Ellen, at the opening scene.
  • Pivotal Wake-up: The Trope Maker, and one of the creepiest moments in the movie.
  • The Plague: When Orlok arrives in Wisborg, he brings disease with him.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) in the Herzog remake.
  • The Renfield: Knock, who was already under Orlok's control before the start of the film.
  • Red Right Hand: See Looks Like Orlok.
  • Royal Decree: Plague victims are decreed to be kept out of the hospital to stop the spread of the disease.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Count Orlok is shown loading his coffins onto a horse-drawn wagon by himself (whereas Count Dracula had hired gypsies doing this in the book and the 1992 film). He's even shown carrying his coffin to his new home later on.
    • Of course, the absence of any noticeable servants at his residence should be some cause for concern on Hutter's part, if the innkeeper's warnings and the Count's appearance hadn't already been.
  • Shout-Out: The song "Nosferatu" by Blue Oyster Cult from their album Spectres is a Whole Plot Reference.
  • Silent Movie: Commonly regarded as one of the greatest.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Some versions of the film feature a near-constant usage of a strange, cheerful little tune that sounds more like it would belong in an old Mickey Mouse cartoon than a classic horror movie. It becomes increasingly hard to get into the mood of the film when this song is in nearly every other scene, even in perfectly innocuous ones, such as the simple act of walking up stairs.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers
  • Swarm of Rats: Orlok brings them with him aboard his ship.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Hutter. His wife Ellen's presence protects him from Orlok while he's in Transylvania, and it is only through her sacrifice that Orlok is killed.
  • Terrifying Pet Store Rat: The Swarm of Rats includes several of the hooded (dark head, white body) variety, which is a domesticated strain of rat.
  • Vampire Bites Suck: Orlok's needle-like incisors leave two small pinprick-holes in the victim's throat.
  • Weakened by the Light: Sunlight makes Orlok catch fire and disappear. (As noted above, this film is the Trope Maker.)
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: A major theme of the Herzog/Kinski remake. It's not so much that he's outliving his loved ones, it's that no one could ever love a monster like him. And living forever, eternally unloved, is almost unbearable. It's possibly the most tragic interpretation of the Dracula story ever.

Alternative Title(s):

Nosferatu The Vampyre