Horror cinema is as ever evolving as any genre that the film world has encountered. From its days in silent cinema as an expressionistic, atmospheric, almost spiritual, aesthetic driven genre, to today where scares in most films seem to result entirely from exponentially growing body counts and gore, horror cinema has gone through as much change as any genre around.
And yet, there are a handful of truly classic early horror pictures that seem to not only stand the test of time, but have become all the more haunting, even more brooding and truly frightening, as time has gone on. Champion among them all? A little film from F. W. Murnau known as Nosferatu.
Not only a classic, ever influential horror film, but one of silent cinema’s greatest aesthetic triumphs, Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s iconic Dracula tells the story of Hutter, a real estate agent looking to make a sale with the solitary Count Orlok. However, when Orlok offers up dinner to the man only to have him slice open his finger while cutting bread, the Count reveals that he may be something more than just a mortal man, something far more demonic. From that moment, Orlok leaves for a village named Bremen, only to have the crew of the ship carrying him (inside of his coffin) killed before arriving. Things only get more bleak and brooding as we discover that there have been a series of mysterious deaths since Orlok’s arrival in the village, and the hunt is on for this evil, demonic man, if “man” is even something fitting of this beast.
While much of the discussion surrounding this film over the years has been around the legendary performance from star Max Schreck, this is one of director Murnau’s greatest cinematic efforts. Shot almost with a sole focus on the use of shadows and light, this film is a dream like thriller that is as haunting as it is genuinely terrifying. With some great effects work (Orlok rising from his coffin is still one of the greatest, most terrifying sequences in all of cinema), the film from frame one to the final credits is as oppressive in its atmosphere as any horror film ever made. Very similar in many ways to a film like Dreyer’s Vampyr, the film is entirely nightmarish, turning this film into something more resembling a dream one would have alone in a castle on a stormy evening. As poetic as it is truly cinematic, a few of the narrative beats feel dated, as the story is as well known as a piece of fiction could ever be, but aesthetically, this finds Murnau at the very height of his powers.
And then there is the film’s star, Max Schreck. The definition of a silent film performance, Schreck turns in a performance as unforgettable as any frame found within the film. While it may lack the emotional depth of the turns found within this writer’s favorite Murnau film, Sunrise, there is a level of believability to the performance that is utterly breathtaking. Schreck gives himself completely over to the performance, and alongside the nightmarish aesthetic, make this film feel oddly tactile and palpable. Bred entirely from his physicality, Schreck gives a definitive silent film performance, oddly comparable to the visceral nature of a name like Harold Lloyd, but instead of slapstick physical comedy, we get a brooding horror performance that will leave you waking up in cold sweat the night after watching the film. Outside of Schreck, performances from names like Gustav von Wangenheim, Greata Scroder and Ruth Landshoff all add a great deal of depth to the film, but it is truly the Murnau and Schreck show here. With frames from this picture forever burned into the mind of anyone and everyone who sees this picture, this is as impressive a technical achievement as silent cinema ever gave the film world.
And now, it’s available in Blu-ray for the entire world to bask in.
Kino has released a dual disc release of the film, which itself looks and sounds absolutely breathtaking. Based on the same restoration as the recent Masters Of Cinema release, the film looks and sounds as wonderful and vital as it has in a long time (especially after decades of being relegated to public domain releases). Both discs come with their own intertitles, one including the English intertitles with the other coming with German intertitles (and English subtitles). Also included here is the original 1922 score from Hans Erdmann, which itself is as haunting and unforgettable as the film it joins. There is a 52-minute long documentary about the making of the film, as well as gorgeous excerpts from various other Murnau films, ranging from Journey Into The Night all the way to his 1931 masterpiece, Tabu. All of these features join one of the greatest films ever made to make this release an absolute must-own going into the holiday season.