There are at least six variations on the Dracula myth on the List, and probably hundreds that aren’t. I’m ashamed to admit that the only other vampire movies I’d seen prior to this (other than Les Vampires, which doesn’t really count) are a half watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Twilight, which I did not choose to watch and am still trying to scrub from my retinas. And yet, though my life has been surprisingly devoid of vampire fiction (I’ve never even seen an episode of Buffy, or an instalment of the Underworld or Blade films), I’m still well versed in the vampire mythology, as indeed is everyone else. It seems one is almost born knowing that vampire’s transform into bats, suck your blood and can be vanquished with a stake in the heart, exposure to sunlight or too much garlic on their pizza.
This version is one of the earliest vampire films, having been released in 1922 and directed by German silent director F. W. Murnau. It follows the traditional Dracula beats (though the vampire is named Count Orlok as this is an unofficial retelling), and stars Max Schreck as the titular creature of the night.
Jonathan Hutter (Gustav von Wangerheim), a clerk from the town of Bremen in Germany, travels to Transylvania (ominous thunder roll) to complete some legal paperwork with the mysterious Count Orlok, who wishes to buy a house in Bremen. Though there are many clues as to what is in store for Hutter, including terrified locals speaking of nocturnal spirits and his creepy, Orlok-controlled boss hinting that the journey will cause him pain and cost him blood, Hutter merrily laughs everything off as ludicrous superstition and hokum, until he arrives at the castle and meets the Count, who keeps unusual sleeping hours and sleeps in a coffin in the basement.
Most of this film is predictable if you know the traditional Dracula legend, but what makes it truly memorable is Schreck’s performance. His distinctive appearance – all pale skin, pointed ears, giant eyebrows over sunken eyes and clawed hands on arms stuck firmly to his sides – sticks in the mind, and his presence is greatly missed whenever he’s off screen. Scenes of Orlok’s stark shadow descending on a prone figure, or his body, stiff as a board, rising from a coffin, stick firmly in the memory, and at the end of the film, when he is staring, unmoving, from a window, is genuinely disconcerting and more than a little terrifying.
It’s unfortunate then that the score for the film is more than a little insane. It kicks off with a cartoonish plinky-plonk tune over the supposedly doom-laden title cards detailing “Nosferatu! That name alone can chill the blood!”, and later the score goes crazy when Hutter is merely reading a book. Also some scenes are let down by a distinct lack of quality in the print. I understand that the film was made 90 years ago, but the scene in which Hutter is discovering bite marks on his neck is ruined by the fact that the bite marks are not even slightly visible on his bright white skin.
The ending is a little hurried, though by that time I was starting to get bored anyway. I was also surprised by how little the character of Van Helsing had to do with the plot, as I’d always thought he was pretty integral to the story, yet he turns up from nowhere halfway through as an expert on vampires in nature.
All in all, this is a good example of an early telling of a classic horror, that unfortunately has become very dated since its release. I’m sure that one of the more recent versions on the list – 1931’s Bela Lugosi starring Dracula or the 1958 Hammer version starring Christopher Lee – will be much better.
Choose life 6/10