Nosferatu is a 1922 horror movie that defines the genre as a whole. There have been movies imitating it, and even a documentary about the making of it. What is it that makes it such a classic? Is it just that it's old? And classic or not, does it provide an enjoyable viewing experience nearly 100 years after its debut? Check out the trailer below, it's not real because trailers weren't really a thing in the 20's, but it does a pretty good job of acting like one. Then check out our review below. And there are spoilers, but come on, isn't there some kind of statute of limitations for that?
Jake: We’re going back, way back, for this week’s review. Nosferatu is the movie, and 1922 is the year.
Jack: Yeah buddy! Much like the Atlanta A&T Marching Band Time Machine, we’re going back, back, back in time!
Jake: Damn it dude, just once I thought we could start one of these clean. I even managed to sneak the first line in before you did your dumb “Uhh, I’m Jack and start reviews with a sentence that is just the name of the movie” thing. But here we are. What are you talking about?
Jack: I’m glad you asked Jake! As I’m sure our readers picked up on, I was quoting 2002’s most classic film, Drumline. And while I would ordinarily embed the video right here, it does not appear to be online because the world is a dark and twisted place with truly fucked up priorities. But just to maintain my journalistic integrity, here is a complete transcript of the movie cataloged by time-stamp. Check out 1:36:09, you’ll see. It’s a quote. As a side note, that website is the work of a fucking madman. Who did that and why?
Jake: There’s no way I’m letting us get this massively sidetracked, this early. I’m just going to move past it… Nosferatu is a really interesting film to review because you have to take everything you know about films and decide what should and should not affect your assessment of the movie in order to give it a fair shake. Turns out that’s way easier said than done, and a lot of biases sneak in there anyway. I’ve seen this movie a few times, but never with the intention of reviewing it.
Jack: This movie is fascinating on so many levels. Right off the bat what interests me is how close it became to being lost to time. This movie was spearheaded by a guy named Grau. He wanted to make an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But much like Scooby and the gang, that meddlesome old widow of Stoker’s tried to foil his plans. Unlike Scooby and the gang, she did so not through sleuthing and Scooby Snax, but instead through not selling Grau the rights to the story. Never one to let things as trivial as laws get in the way, Grau went right the fuck ahead and made the movie anyway. He made Dracula, but in an ingenious attempt to circumvent a possible lawsuit, he changed count “Dracula” to “Orlok,” and “Jonathan Harker” to “Thomas Hutter.”
Jack: Somehow able to see through his ruse, Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement under the inter-country copyright compact that European countries had entered. She won, and because apparently judges in early 1900’s Europe could just do what the fuck ever they want, the judge ordered every copy of the movie destroyed. Seriously. The motherfucking court order was “Just go ahead and burn every fucking copy.” Luckily for the world, the good old US of A had not signed on to that copyright compact because fuck other countries. Over here, there was a technical error with Dracula’s copyright, which allowed it to lapse into the public domain well before it was supposed to. One copy of Nosferatu survived an-hilliation, and it found its way to the States. Since Dracula was public domain over here we did not tyrannically burn the movie, and thus we get to watch it today.
Jake: Well fuck. I wanted to be mad at you for your rant, but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t actually informative. Jesus. I mean I still have to get us back on track, but well done. The movie’s age both helps and hurts it. In one way, I think the atmosphere really benefits because there is something pretty special about the eerie silence coupled with the grainy quality of the film. They were still figuring this moving picture thing out in 1922, and I think its age helps in some ways. There’s an added feeling of isolation when you watch it. You can hear the crackles and pops in the audio. You pay more attention to what the actors are doing because it’s a silent film. I personally think the atmosphere benefited a lot because of it.
Jack: Since you brought up the sound, there is one aspect of the movie’s age that does not help it maintain its scariness today. The score. The orchestral piece that accompanies the movie (at least on the version available on youtube which I believe is the original one) is downright comical at times. It’s really binary though. Sometimes it’s scary and ominous in the way that only a full orchestra can be, but other times is lighthearted and put a spring in my step when what I was seeing was supposed to be scary.
Jake: It’s worth mentioning before getting into the plot that, due to its age, Nosferatu is also a bitch to review from the simple standpoint that there are a ton of different versions out there. I started out watching a “remastered” version that added a “recovered” score and additional scenes in “HD”. I quickly learned that was a fuckin’ mistake and changed back to the good ol’ public domain version. Proper Nosferatu.
Jack: Yeah, and that’s all because of all that bird-law I was talking earlier. You do not want to go toe-to-toe on bird law with me. Some versions have the count as “Orlok,” but some straight up just call him “Dracula.” Similarly, some versions call the protagonist “Harker,” while others call him “Hutter.”
Jake: Yeah, it’s confusing as shit. Anyway, the film starts with a young go-getter real estate agent, who we will refer to as Hutter because fuck you, receiving a job from his absurdly creepy boss to sell some property in town to a wealthy count. Problem is, that rich bitch lives all the way out in bum-fuck Transylvania. And Hutter has to go pitch him and make the sale. He promptly tells his wife he’s heading to “the land of thieves and phantoms” to make a boatload of cash, presumably on the commission he’ll get. She’s worried about it. No shit. “Land of thieves and phantoms?” Does not inspire confidence.
Jack: When he arrives in town, we’re treated to a couple of very bizarre scenes. The first is when Harker first gets into town and goes to the local tavern/hotel. He starts slammin drinks like he’s trying to go full “The Ders” on it. It’s strange because he’s presented throughout the movie as a really dedicate employee hell-bent on selling the castle. With the exception of this scene, which plays like he’s been in jail for years and this is his first night of freedom. The second scene that’s really weird is when he finds a book explaining and warning about vampires in the night-stand of his hotel like it’s a dang Gideon’s Bible in a Motel 6. He twice scoffs and throws down the book.
Jake: Not scared off by the superstitious townsfolk, Hutter hitches a ride on a carriage up to Orlok’s castle. When he gets close, the driver tells him to get the hell out because he’s not going closer. Again, does not inspire confidence.
Jack: It certainly does not. But the driver won’t tell him why. For a village that will leave a fucking book about vampires by his bed, these fuckers sure are coy when it comes to actually talking about them. In any case, Hutter makes his own damn way to the castle, arriving in the dead of night.
Jake: Orlok comes out to greet Hutter and my god does he look phenomenal. This is the stuff of legends. It’s from 1922 and it still inspires more nightmares than most of the stuff that has been made during my lifetime. Max Schreck knocks it outta the fuckin’ ballpark with his performance. Huge credit goes to the makeup and effects team too, but he sells it so well with his presence on camera. The way he moves is unsettling and his eyes are absolutely terrifying.
Jack: For those not in the know, Max Schreck plays Orlok (Dracula). And yeah, he does just a fantastic job. He’s so fucking scary. He’s actually so scary that it’s really hard to believe that Hutter, upon meeting him, is still down to sell him a castle in his town. Or even fucking talk to him. He is genuinely terrifying.
Jake: It’s worth mentioning at this point that there’s a legend out there that Schreck actually was a vampire that Mernau found and cast for the role. Seriously. Apparently Schreck was quite the method actor and would never let the crew see him out of character, maintained weird hours, the whole bit… That’s creepy as shit and perfectly accompanies a movie that is almost 100 years old. This is a film that carries some weight when you watch it anyway because you are taking a glimpse back into another world. Everyone who worked on it is now dead. It’s mysterious, and the Schreck legend only adds to that. They even made a movie about it called Shadow of The Vampire, starring John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe. Check it out. Just ignore that Nick Cage produced it. It’s good. Promise.
Jack: Discussions of Nick Cage almost certainly mean we’ve gotten off track. Harker is having dinner with Orlok after arriving super late. Despite Orlok looking like he does, Harker does not leave the table at his first opportunity. Instead he accidentally cuts himself on the finger with a knife, and then just stands there like a fucking weirdo while Orlok LITERALLY LICKS THE BLOOD OFF OF HIS FINGER! FUCK! It is at this stage that Harker should have told Orlok that the castle is no longer available because he’s decided that the first applicant, Jared Fogle, is not nearly as bad as he thought and will be moving in instead.
Jake: Anyway, Hutter doesn’t seem creeped out for long. Not sure if he’s wildly committed to making some scratch or if Orlok somehow got in his head, but he doesn’t bail. He wakes up in the morning and finds bite marks on his neck. Because it’s a horror movie and we’re not yet 30 minutes in, he attributes it to a mosquito or spider.
Jack: Book warning you about vampires? Frightened townspeople? Creepy looking motherfucker who literally sucked the blood off of your finger? Suspicious bite marks on your neck after you wake up? Nah, don’t see any possible connection there. Coincidences all.
Jake: As night falls again the castle builds more of an ominous feeling and you can really start to sense Hutter’s isolation. The creepiest part to me is that, on this massive property, there do not appear to be any service people. In fairness, knowing what we know about Orlok it makes sense, but damn is it unsettling. The gothic architecture and crumbling landscape really pops with all that lack of anything else happening.
Jack: And at this stage there’s an instance of the score working really really well. It’s cacophonous and frightening. It fits right in. Sets the tone perfectly.
Jake: Hutter’s second night does not go well at all. He “dreams” that Orlok is after him in a scene that I personally love. Orlok slowly glides through an arched doorway, that’s just barely large enough to perfectly fit his body. You really start to get a sense for the age of the place and of Orlok as a character at this point. When Hutter wakes up, he’s firmly convinced that what he’s dealing with is vampires, even though he doesn’t fucking believe in vampires, so he goes looking for Orlok.
Jack: Hutter makes his way down to the crypt (always a good place to go poking around when you’re freaking the fuck out about vampires) where he is horrified to find Orlok sleeping in a coffin. Terrified, Harker does a Benny-Hill style slapstick run around the castle and falls and hurts himself. This is an example of where the score does not add the the tone. It’s whimsical, and downright funny. But then the movie takes a u-turn and gives us what might be one of my favorite scenes in all of horror. Harker watches out a window as Orlok stacks coffins on a coach. The scene is great, and I can’t tell how much of it is on purpose. The scene is sped up about 200%, it’s almost stop-motion. You watch as Orlok stacks coffin after coffin, tetris-style, on the coach. I can’t tell if the filmmakers wanted to make Orlok look supernatural and freaky, or just didn’t want us to watch a really long scene of stacking coffins. Either way the scene is super effective, and I love it. It’s creepy and unnerving.
Jake: Orlok stows himself away on a ship headed for Harker’s hometown, and one of the best sequences in the movie ensues as the ship’s crew slowly start falling ill and dying off on their voyage. When we are down to just the captain and his first mate (because illnesses are selective like that and go for the scrubs first), they fear they are carrying the plague on board. The first mate goes looking in the hold for what their cargo is, finds Orlok in all his terrifying glory, and immediately jumps ship. The captain, being the last person on board, goes full Odysseus and straps himself to the ship’s wheel to save himself from the madness that is apparently residing below deck. It does not go well for him.
Jack: The ship, now sans crew and “driven by the fatal breath of the vampire,” pulls into the town from which Harker came. The dock workers find the ghost ship, and send up the alarm to quarantine the town to prevent the spread of the plague.Was that still a thing in the 1920’s? Shit. I mean, I know it was in that one episode of House, but I hardly think the villagers in this town near Transylvania saw that episode . . .
Jake: Orlok has taken up shop in his equally huge and creepy house in town at this point. No one seems to notice because they are all failing at staying inside and instead running around chasing Hutter’s crazed boss who apparently got locked up in the loony bin but has killed the warden, escaped, and is now running around all over goddamn town like a maniac.
Jake: After an incredible amount of deliberation, Hutter’s wife decides to do what the book says and offer herself to the vampire. Orlok comes running and sucks her blood because that's what vampires do. This is undeniably THE iconic scene in the film. Even if you’ve never seen a horror movie (in which case you’re sure as shit not reading this) you know that image of the long shadow ascending the stairs. Classic, classic film stuff, you guys.
Jack: I like to believe most our our readers tune in for our witty banter and Drumline references, and then the horror reviews are just gravy on top of that.
Jake: You really are just living in your own little fantasy world huh? Just as she planned, the timing works and Orlok is caught in the sun’s first rays, which kill him in a puff of smoke. She dies from blood loss, but the vampire is dead and the town is safe.
Jack: Yeah Jake, that’s how sex works. You’ll learn that. Didn’t need a goddamned vampire book to tell them that, just an Idaho public school sex-ed class. Duh.
For 1, think of how annoying this was:
For 10, think of how much Bob and Doug McKenzie love beer:
Jack: 6 - It’s a really good story, especially given how little the filmmakers had to work with to develop this. It is a little complicated because, while I like the story, the filmmakers came up with none of it, because it’s just Dracula.
Jake: 7 - How much credit, or lack thereof, do we give to the movie for certain things based on how incredibly far removed we are from when it was released? I’m impressed by it because it holds up well enough even now, showing how good of a job they did in terms of adapting a story to film given the obvious limitations faced in 1922.
WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION:
Jack: 2 - This movie is hurt so much by its nonsense orchestral score. Sometimes it works, but when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t. Sure, maybe a movie from the ‘20s will never really be able to suck a modern viewer in that much, but this movie had scenes that did, and showing me that potential makes the rest of it get a low score.
Jake: 4 - The score took me out of it at points as well. Like really took me out of it. That being said, there were scenes that I found suspenseful and was locked in. Overall, probably just too much of a difference in time for this one to do well for us, even when trying to be unbiased.
Jack: 4 - The scenes that are terrifying will be terrifying forever. I have had and will in the future have nightmares about that fucking scene of Orlok rising out of the hold of the ship. The rest of the movie doesn’t do that much, and again, the score takes a lot of terror out of otherwise creepy scenes.
Jake: 8 - I think that given what was known about how to make a film in 1922, every opportunity to create suspense, creepiness and downright frights was absolutely grabbed by the balls. While it’s not going to be something that keeps me up at night, I give major credit to Orlok’s design and just how many iconic scenes there are from this movie. Add to it the lore surrounding Mernau and his recruitment off Schreck for the role, and it’s a really interesting, creepy little flick.
EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):
Jack: 6 - This a really hard category. Some of this movie could warrant the highest possible score in this category. Orlok himself was terrifying. Remains terrifying even now. The scenes they shot of the rats are really disturbing. That scene of Van Helsing’s amoebas was outrageous for the era. But then you intermix that with some truly terrible fake blood and backgrounds that are just clearly oil paintings. They were clearly geniuses who found a way to exceed the technological limitations that they had, but then sometimes they just didn’t.
Jake: 6 - what Jack said.
Jack: 6 - I like this movie. I think it’s great. I do think it can be hard to watch nowadays, but it’s one that defines the genre.
Jake: 6.25 - This paved the way for horror and so many things that are scary now. It’s one of the cornerstones of the genre. I respect the hell out of Nosferatu, and highly recommend it to anyone and everyone not only as a genre film, but as a piece of cinema history. The rating doesn’t quite reflect it because of our bullshit formulaic approach that I stick to for no reason whatsoever. Yeah, it’s kind of hard to watch now, but it’s still top notch stuff.