“Does this word not sound to you like the midnight cry of the Deathbird. Take care in saying it, lest life’s images fade into shadows and ghostly dreams rise from your heart and nourish themselves on your blood. Long have I contemplated the origin and recession of the Great Death in my hometown of Wisborg. Here is its story. There lived in Wisborg Hutter and his young wife Ellen.”
There’s something about silent films that gives them an inherently fantasy feel. It could be the storybook nature of limited sets and lighting, confined casts within individual spaces and generally static camera placement. Expression comes from the pieces within the frame. Only, Nosferatu doesn’t rely entirely on pre-built sets. Much of the film is shot on-location in the German countryside. The uncontrollable texture of nature distancing itself from the enclosed comfort of the indoors. Light, shadows and movement stretch the fantastical into the reality. Drenched with the sweat, tears and blood of the working class, Count Orlok towers above a countryside of innocent villagers.
If you google “German Expressionism” F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film will be at the top of the search results. It’s a stark contrast to horrors of today in its initial presentation, with hardly any outright “scary” moments until the half hour mark. Even then, the horror isn’t exactly subtle. A clearly insidious realtor seduces his employee into a business transaction by promising it will cost blood. None of that matters. Murnau’s declaration is primal and vicious. Subtext is made literal as a professor shows insects trapping their prey. Tiny creatures of the night tangling innocent bystanders in their cunning, until he cuts back to a realtor draining the life from a town guardsman.
Murnau sculpts his light with a precision that still draws attention to this day, with what could only be classified as an OG jump-scare. Young Thomas Hutter, a poor employee on assignment to sell a house to Count Orlok, looks out into a dark hallway, only to have something stare right back at him. It’s the nightmares of our reality composed into fantasy. Blood sucking upper class manipulate those who are less financially well off, until they begin spreading their illness throughout the land. Townsfolk beneath Orlok’s castle hurdling into corners and crying just by the mere mention of his name.
Vampires, for me, tend to work best when we see the extent of their bloodlust. Their insatiable longing for culling life and light matched against their growing evil and relentless shadows. A conglomerate of terror and social anxieties that plays like a dream, before curdling into a nightmare.
As far as I’m concerned, this is the cinematic birth of the horror genre.