Many of the vampires that swarmed the last hundred years of cinema are descended from one of two forefathers: one is a striking, elegant, and even romantic figure, while the other is nothing if not grotesque. These archetypes, each spawned by two early, competing film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, re-contextualize Stoker’s eponymous villain in entirely divergent ways.
Nosferatu, F. W. Murnau’s 1922 silent vampire film, begins with a declaration that it is adapted from Stoker’s Dracula. But while Murnau borrowed the bones of Stoker’s plot, he also made major changes. He gave all of the characters new names. His vampire dies not from a stake through the heart, but—fittingly for a film—from exposure to sunlight. In Stoker’s novel the vampire is vanquished by a group of men, but in Murnau’s film only a woman can defeat him. Most importantly, Nosferatu’s villain is not the chatty, bookish Count of Stoker’s story; Marnau’s vampire, Orlok, is a skeletal, bat-eared goblin with needle fangs and wide, nocturnal eyes.
Shortly after Murnau made his film, two divergent traditions of cinematic vampires emerged. The first tradition is that of Murnau’s sad, lonely vampire; a symbol of illness, malnutrition, and pestilence. The second is the famous, erotically appealing Dracula, whose all too capable mouth suavely seduces his victims. This Dracula did not originate in Stoker’s novel, but actually entered popular culture a decade after Nosferatu, in the 1931 Universal Studios film adaptation starring Bela Lugosi.
While Stoker’s vampire is friendly and definitely sexual, he is not at all sexy; a protagonist describes him as being malodorous and hairy. In fact, his vampire is a robust predator, who attacks his victims without their consent. Dracula is a foreign trespasser who “came to London to invade a new land”—as Stoker’s heroine, Mina Harker, explains to a group of vampire hunters—a Transylvanian aristocrat who has been pillaging faraway places since the Middle Ages. By contrast, Murnau’s film is preoccupied with hunger, disease, loneliness, and darkness, Murnau’s vampire more invaded than invader. There is no evidence that Nosferatu has ever left his homeland, until a solicitor arrives to sell him an estate somewhere across the nearby sea. Unlike the gregarious Dracula, the moody, introverted Nosferatu dislikes having a guest; he would prefer to have the solicitor as his meal.
Nearly a century after Murnau adapted Stoker’s novel, vampire films have proven to be as perennial as their subjects.
Murnau and his creative team never purchased adaptation rights to Stoker’s text, and Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe Stoker, swiftly sued him and his entire film company for copyright infringement. With her suit, Mrs. Stoker was possibly less concerned about how much Nosferatu resembled the novel than how gravely it differed from it. David J. Skal, in Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, speculates that Mrs. Stoker was appalled at the grotesqueness of Murnau’s creation, a common contemporary reaction; the 1922 London film censor banned UK theatres from purchasing the film on the grounds that it was simply “too horrible.” While the British found Nosferatu much creepier than the book, German and French critics praised the film’s darkly elegant cinematography, and even its sensuality.
Decades after its release, Nosferatu would find itself lauded as “the first Dracula picture,”1 an ironic outcome given that Mrs. Stoker had fought so long against its association with the novel. During the seven years of her litigation, she attempted to destroy all vestiges of the film she believed had pirated her husband’s work, and convinced the German courts handling the case to demolish all of the Nosferatu film reels and negatives that their agents could locate. She also diverted potential fans to other Dracula adaptations that she licensed herself, most of which were plays. Consequently, even though Nosferatu would later be recognized as tangentially connected to Dracula, Florence Stoker’s lawsuit would end up creating two bifurcated vampire archetypes with connections to the novel: that of Nosferatu, and that of Dracula. Nosferatu would beget its own thematic and aesthetic film tradition, generating a legitimate descendant in the form of a 1979 remake by German director Werner Herzog.
The most successful of the Stoker-approved theatrical Dracula adaptations was written by Hamilton Deane, the production opened in London’s West End in 1927, and on Broadway in a slightly adapted form later that same year. While both versions of Deane’s play took fewer stylistic liberties than Murnau’s film had with Stoker’s novel, the new plays nevertheless significantly altered the plot. The American version transformed Stoker’s Gothic tale into a drawing-room melodrama about a well-to-do English family whose daughter is bitten by Count Dracula, a deceptively friendly neighbor who always stops by. This version provided the basis for the Dracula film starring Bela Lugosi, directed by Tod Browning, in 1931; the film’s credits presented it as an adaptation of Deane’s play, not Stoker’s novel. That film inspired many of its own sequels, and provided a reference point for all Dracula films to come.
To date, the Internet Movie Database lists 515 film or television works in which the character Dracula has appeared since 1922. But this army of the undead really exists in two camps. The first we might call the standard Dracula, inspired by the 1931 Browning film, which focuses on a charismatic, reverse-aging Transylvanian count who insinuates himself into the West. The second is the Nosferatu story, which emphasizes the arrival of a traveler in Eastern Europe, where he encounters a sad, lonely, and spectral German or Slavic vampire. To be sure, Dracula movies often show a British lawyer arriving at Castle Dracula, and Nosferatu movies might involve the vampire’s voyage from his homeland. But the Dracula tradition generally represents the vampire as a trespasser, and worries most about the vampire’s contamination of a pure Western population. The Nosferatu strain, with its decaying castles and armies of rats, focuses on the vampire’s relationship to his forbidden visitors, stresses stagnation, and presents immortality as a gloomy, shadowy disease.
Many films begin, like Stoker’s novel, with the British solicitor Jonathan Harker arriving in the rural backwaters of the Carpathian Mountains. Harker is there to facilitate the purchase of an English estate by the Transylvanian nobleman and all-around Anglophile Count Dracula, whom Harker soon suspects is a vampire. He is held captive as Dracula prepares for a voyage to England. But this entire story comprises only the first four of the novel’s 27 chapters. The story then shifts to London, where Harker’s fiancée Mina awaits news of her husband, little suspecting that Dracula is headed towards her. Her journal entries, and those of her friends and acquaintances, record the strange events that begin to transpire in London, as the vampire who had confined her husband begins to wreak terror on her homeland.
In Stoker’s novel, the interlude at Castle Dracula is a relatively thin frame for the suspenseful story of Dracula’s arrival in England and the threat he poses to its native inhabitants. Stoker’s Dracula is an invader; his hunters seek to drive him back to his homeland and destroy him. As in the 1931 Browning film, most Dracula adaptations follow this logic. In fact, the 1979 Universal Studios remake starring Frank Langella (which also credited its plot to the Deane/Balderston play, as well as Stoker’s novel) completely eliminates the opening scene in the castle, choosing to emphasize instead Dracula’s impact on his new landscape.
Murnau’s Nosferatu, however, turns exposition into plot. His film focuses on an outsider, the Harker character (renamed “Hutter”), entering the vampire’s space and having a terrifying experience there. Orlok, the vampire, does not even arrive in civilization—Hutter’s hometown of Wisborg—until two-thirds of the film is over. Thus, Nosferatu tells the story of a spectral creature in the hinterlands whose solitude is broken by a guest. Orlok, like Dracula, is invasive by nature, draining his victims of their blood, but the film focuses on his aversive reaction to actually receiving company. Instead of Dracula, Orlok is more like the Venus flytraps and spiders Murnau features later in the film, not so much an active, aggressive predator as a passive, introverted, opportunistic one. Stoker’s Dracula has a friendly, courtly manner; he does not bite his guest Jonathan Harker, but instead chats with him about literature all night. The cinematic Draculas take this even further, using their elegant comportment and natural extroversion to befriend Harker—and seduce the women whose blood they want to drink. This point is in contrast to Stoker’s Dracula, who cares far less about complicity and consent, instead hypnotizing women in order to drink their blood. Conversely, the shy, ugly, reclusive Orlok has few manners and little technique. He practically attacks Hutter the first time they meet; when Hutter accidentally cuts his hand on a knife during dinner, Orlok springs on him. The following night, he creeps into Hutter’s room and bites him. He will do the same to Hutter’s wife. Orlok, whose appearance suggests he is starving, and whose behavior suggests he does not have practice or even interest in interacting socially, cannot stand others; the visitors’ presence in his home tortures him unless he can eat them.
Nosferatu films make vampires genuinely repellent.
When Orlok does venture out of his castle late in the film, Murnau emphasizes his vulnerability to the outside world. He is destroyed not long after entering his new locale. Distracted by the sheer enjoyment of feeding on the woman whose blood he has been sucking (Ellen, Hutter’s wife), Orlok does not realize that day has dawned. He dies as an unwelcome guest in someone else’s home, captured by a woman who first appears onscreen holding a cat. Like her feline pet, Ellen is a domestic hunter who will catch the rat-like vampire that has attempted to invade her body and her home. Although the skinny, sickly Orlok is shown to be weak after his short time in the outside world, his death scene does not inspire pity. We cheer for Ellen, who survives to the moment she is reunited with her husband—after she gave Nosferatu a taste of his own medicine.
Whereas Dracula is a predator who can be hunted in turn, Orlok is an infector. A scientist with little relation to the plot appears late in the film to discuss a bacterium that he describes as “a polyp with tentacles … transparent … almost ethereal … little more than a phantom.” The analogy to Nosferatu is clear: he is a germ. The film crawls with images of invading microorganisms and small pests, and intertitles explain that a plague is spreading throughout the region. While at Orlok’s castle, Hutter mistakes bite marks on his neck for mosquito bites. Swarms of rats are found in the coffins that Orlok brings along to Hutter’s town.
Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of Nosferatu takes these themes much further. His shy, sad Nosferatu—played by Klaus Kinski and called “Dracula,” since Stoker’s novel was by then out of copyright—sounds ill, wheezes with every breath, and speaks in a small, stuffy-sounding voice. His bite turns others into vampires; his illness readily spreads like any pathogen, whereas Murnau’s Orlok can only kill his victims when he drains them of blood. When interviewed, Kinski explained that Herzog’s sickly vampire “is kind of an incarnation of evil, but he is also a man who is suffering, suffering for love.” In this film, Harker’s entrance into Nosferatu’s castle reminds the vampire of his own loneliness, and he leaves his castle in a quest for existential completion. Herzog’s Nosferatu is perhaps the most vulnerable of the cinematic vampires. He is ultimately trapped and killed when a woman he loves tricks him. Once he has finished feeding on her, she pulls him back to drink from her again when he gets up to leave. When dawn leaks into her bedroom, he is shocked and hurt to find that his victim was not as complacent and affectionate as he had hoped. The gasping, strangled noises he makes—as he realizes he has been tricked into exposure to daylight—are meant to indicate both his death and his broken heart.
In 1931, when Mrs. Stoker authorized the production of Universal Studio’s Dracula, she intended to slam the final nail into Nosferatu’s coffin, by permanently displacing its position as the foundational adaptation of her husband’s novel. But Nosferatu proved more difficult to kill than its vulnerable lead. The descendants of Nosferatu would come to include the Herzog remake, its sequel Nosferatu in Venice (1988), and the film Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a meta-remake that takes place on the set of Murnau’s original Nosferatu film. There is also a SpongeBob SquarePants episode entitled “Graveyard Shift,” a horror-film pastiche in which a friendly Orlok makes an appearance. And a new Nosferatu remake is in the works, directed by Robert Eggers, the architect behind 2015’s indie hit The Witch.
Nearly a century after Murnau adapted Stoker’s novel, vampire films have proven to be as perennial as their subjects. Yet Nosferatu’s progeny remain distinct from Dracula’s children. The bulbous, hairless heads, protruding eyes, and skinny, unwieldy rodent incisors of Nosferatu’s vampires make them ugly outliers within a realm dominated by the stronger, more debonair undead of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Twilight (2008-2012), and True Blood (2008-2014). These latter vampires—inspired, of course, by the cinematic Draculas—are standard fare of the horror genre, which is famous for often combining elements of fear and revulsion with those of eroticism. This fosters in the genre’s audience a simultaneous reaction of fright and attraction, which in turn complicates and compounds the experience of terror.
Nosferatu films do not concern themselves with tempting audiences toward the dark side, or with teasing viewers about how the darkness might seem so right yet becomes something so wrong. Nosferatu films make vampires genuinely repellent, and the only feeling they foster unrelated to disgust or fright is pity. Nosferatu not only lacks the gentlemanly qualities, virile appearance, and artfully manipulative abilities of many other vampires; he is unaware that such qualities exist. Unlike Dracula, the dour, lonely Nosferatu does not know that he can turn his impulses into a game. It is a terrible thing to be a vampire–as the Nosferatu films warn the smitten, bitten audiences of the Dracula canon–because being lost in a cycle of eternal hunger and desire is certainly a fate worse than death.
Many thanks to Michael, Mallory, Kevin, and Sharon.
- “Film Notes,” New York Herald Tribune, Jun 29, 1962. ↩