Let's continue our look at classic horror with the second-oldest film on the list--F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu.
Synopsis - Spoilers Included
Nosferatu opens with Johnathan Harker (known as Thomas Hutter in older versions) being sent to Transylvania by his boss, Renfield, to sell Count Dracula (known as Count Orlok in older versions) a home in Harker's home town. The oddly-acting Renfield, who has been the subject of gossip around town, suggests that they try to sell him the house opposite Harker's own. The overjoyed Harker sets off after leaving a less-enthused Nina in the care of friends Westenra and Lucy.
It is only once Harker reaches Transylvania that he hears of any trouble with the Count. At an inn, he is cautioned to stay indoors because of "evil spirits" that become "all-powerful" after the sun sets. Harker laughs off the warning but spends the evening reading The Book of Vampire. He learns for the time the name Nosferatu.
The next morning he sets off for Dracula's castle but runs into a bit of trouble when the coach's driver refuses to continue onward after sunset. Harker and his baggage are abandoned and Harker crosses the bridge into Dracula's property on foot, only to be met shortly thereafter by a draped carriage that takes him on to the castle.
Harker enters the castle and is greeted by Dracula, who serves him dinner while Dracula looks over the lease agreement. Distracted, Harker cuts his thumb with the bread knife. He is horrified when Dracula attempts to consume the resulting blood.
The next morning, Harker awakens in a chair and discovers two bites on his neck. He dismisses them as spider or mosquito bites but writes to Nina that Transylvania is a strange country. He also mentions frightful dreams but, again, dismisses them as unimportant.
That evening Dracula, who has been absent all day, signs the property documents after seeing a photo of Harker's wife Nina. Later, Harker reads more from his book and learns that vampires consume blood from the throats of their victims. Harker becomes frightened and begins to look for an escape. Dracula enters the trapped Harker's room.
While Dracula is preying on her husband, Nina, who is still back home in Bremen, sleepwalks out onto the balcony of her room and collapses. She calls to her husband as he is being attacked by the vampire.
The next day, Harker rummages through the castle and is horrified to find Dracula asleep in his coffin. But rather than run, Harker returns to his room where, that evening, he witnesses Dracula loading coffins of dirt onto a wagon. Only then does Harker attempt to escape but he is injured. After a hospital stay, he returns home.
Dracula, who somehow now has driven Renfield insane from afar, also sets off for Bremen with his coffins of dirt, bringing plague to each of the ship's port stops and preying on the ship's crew one by one. When the ship arrives in Bremen, only the dead captain, who has tied himself to the wheel, is left onboard.
Nina breaks her promise to Harker and reads The Book of the Vampires, learning the truth about the epidemic that is sweeping through the town. She also learns that only a woman with a pure heart can destroy the vampire by offering the monster her own blood and enticing him to stay with her until sunrise.
Nina puts her plan into motion. She throws open her bedroom windows to let Dracula in but collapses--or feigns a collapse--and sends Harker for the doctor. Dracula wastes no time in preying on Nina.
Finally, the crow of the rooster is heard and Dracula, who realizes at last what is happening, attempts to escape but is destroyed by the morning sunlight. Nina awakens and calls to Jonathan but collapses as Harker enters the room.
Why Nosferatu Is A Must-See Film
Nosferatu is not a particularly great film. It is never explained, for example, how or why the vampire controls Renfield from such a distance or why Harker doesn't simply run from the castle the morning of the first attack. Could a reasonable human being really hear all those stories about vampires, find himself a near-prisoner of such a strange man and then just completely dismiss a pair of mysterious puncture wounds as mosquito bites?
Nevertheless, even though it wasn't the first vampire, or even the first adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, this is the film that first defined, in a lasting way, the vampire. For that, alone, it is worth at least one viewing.
Lisa's Favorite Scene
Ask most people what their favorite Nosferatu scene is and I'll bet they say it's the moment onboard the ship when the first mate sees Dracula rise from his coffin in that iconic scene we all instantly recognize. But my favorite scene is the one in which Nosferatu hears the rooster's crow and realizes he is finished. Max Schreck did an amazing job bringing that little touch of humanity to an otherwise hideous creature.
Closing Thoughts On Nosferatu
Nosferatu is interesting to me because it comes as close as any vampire film has come to depicting the true horror of the legend of the predatory undead. This Dracula isn't handsome, he isn't cultured and he isn't smartly dressed. He certainly isn't sexy. No, this Dracula brings with him only disease and ruin.
I only wish more vampire films stayed truer to the Eastern European legend of the vârcolac.