“Is this your wife? What a lovely throat.”
The first, and arguably best, vampire horror movie ever made is F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). The silent movie, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, starred Max Schreck as one of the most frightening vampires to ever grace the screen. In fact, Nosferatu was almost the first Dracula movie. After Stoker died, his widow forced Murnau to change the name of the movie and the characters, and Count Orlok and Nosferatu were born. The irony to this is that Nosferatu’s success inspired countless knockoff movies, including Dracula (1931). None approached the horror of Nosferatu.
Schreck was so convincing in his role that he inspired, nearly a century later, Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a horror movie which asks the question: What if F.W. Murnau had cast a real vampire in Nosferatu? Because Schreck was a staunch method actor, never allowing the crew or other cast members see him out of character, there were some who asked this very question. It’s hard to watch Nosferatu without beginning to believe in vampires, and maybe this is because the filmmakers believed in vampires, too.
The true beauty of Nosferatu is that it was the original vampire movie, unsullied by the eventual tropes which came to dominate vampire horror. The Count, Graf Orlok (Schreck), is not a lover like Bela Lugosi. He does not turn into a bat, nor does he run screaming from garlic cloves. He is a pre-cliche vampire, a monster afflicted with a curse or a disease. He stalks, and he feeds.
In this sense, Nosferatu is a pure, Gothic monster movie.
The story begins with Count Orlok wishing to purchase a house in Wisbourg across the road from the agent dispatched to seal the deal. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) travels to Count Orlok’s Transylvania castle, and when the count spies a photograph of Hutter’s wife, Ellen (Greta Schroder), he becomes instantly obsessed with her.
Though Hutter closes the deal, he is always jumping at shadows while inside the castle. He notices Orlok sleeps during the day, and eventually he discovers Orlok’s secret sleeping chamber is a crypt. Hutter believes Orlok to be a vampire, but he becomes trapped inside the castle while Orlok stows away on a ship transporting coffins(!). On his way to Wisbourg, the murderous count leaves a body count of blood-drained victims while pursuing Ellen.
The eventual scenes with Ellen cowering from Count Orlok are cinema gold, classic scenes which almost define the horror movie.
German expressionist Murnau weaves a creepy, sinister film that in many ways has yet to be equaled. Murnau’s use of lighting, long harsh shadows, and unusual camera angles aided in what is certainly a disturbing film.
Seeing Nosferatu makes me want to turn the clock back to the 1920s. What if vampire horror had followed the Nosferatu path and never bogged itself down in the now predictable cliches which have existed since Dracula (1931)? Would the vampire-as-lover trope ever come into being?
It’s intriguing to wonder what future filmmakers and writers would have done with the vampire mythos. Not until Mr. Barlow haunted a new generation of horror fans in the Salem’s Lot miniseries (1979) did another vampire as frighteningly hideous as Count Orlok appear on screen.
“The most terrifying vampire novel since Salem’s Lot”
Nosferatu’s Count Orlok, portrayed by Max Schreck, remains one of the most haunting figures in cinematic history. With his elongated fingers, bald head, and rodent-like features, he departs from the romantic and often sexualized vampires that would flood pop culture in the years following “Dracula.” Director F.W. Murnau’s decision to steer away from the aristocratic allure commonly associated with the vampire archetype in favor of a monstrous, predatory creature is what sets “Nosferatu” apart. This film becomes a visceral experience, tapping into our primal fears, rather than a Gothic romance.
The atmospheric dread of “Nosferatu” is palpable. Every frame is drenched in shadows, and its deliberate pacing lends an impending sense of doom. Many modern vampire tales focus on the interpersonal relationships and the internal struggles of being a vampire, often diluting the horror. “Nosferatu” offers no such reprieve. Orlok is an unstoppable force of nature, a predator on the hunt. While there’s certainly room in the vampire genre for romantic and more humanized portrayals, it’s refreshing to look back at a time when the vampire was a thing of pure terror, and “Nosferatu” stands as a chilling testament to that era.
Count Orlok vs Mr. Barlow (TV version)
Count Orlok from “Nosferatu” and Mr. Barlow from the “Salem’s Lot” TV miniseries are both striking representations of the vampire, but each offers a distinct vision that has left a lasting impact on horror enthusiasts. The ways they diverge in appearance and presentation make for an interesting comparison.
Count Orlok, as portrayed by Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” is perhaps one of the most visually distinctive vampires in cinematic history. His grotesque appearance, with rat-like teeth, bald head, long clawed fingers, and haunting eyes, is instantly recognizable. Orlok embodies the pure essence of a predator, a creature that is more monster than man. There’s no charm or allure to him; he is terror incarnate, a silent stalker in the shadows, representing the silent, creeping dread of the unknown.
On the other hand, Mr. Barlow from the “Salem’s Lot” miniseries, inspired by Stephen King’s novel, also deviates from the suave, charming vampire trope made popular by Dracula. In many ways, he’s a spiritual successor to Orlok. With his ghostly pale skin, glowing eyes, and ferocious fangs, Barlow is a creature of nightmare, an otherworldly evil that invades the small town of Salem’s Lot. Unlike Orlok, however, Barlow doesn’t appear as frequently throughout the story. His presence is more spectral, an unseen force that lurks in the backdrop of Salem’s Lot, making his rare appearances all the more shocking and terrifying.
Both figures reclaim the vampire’s origins as a creature of horror, steering away from the romanticized versions that have often dominated popular culture. They serve as chilling reminders that the vampire, in its purest form, is a monstrous entity, representing our most primal fears.
Nosferatu still stands as one of the best vampire horror films ever made, and any discussion of vampire horror which does not include Nosferatu is sadly incomplete.
Ready to see how the legend began? Check out the two-disc Blu-ray remastering of Nosferatu.
And if you prefer reading horror over watching movies, check out these hair-raising horror books and find your next great read!