Nosferatu (1922) directed by F.W. Murnau
As a kid, my favorite movie genre must have been anything with Chinese vampires. If I remember correctly, these movies were a combination of horror, martial arts, comedy, action and adventure. These elements varied from film to film, but the one constant were those scary zombie looking vampires. Before teenage girls wanted to hold hands and frolic in flowerbeds with them, people of all ages were terrified of vampires. They're undead creatures that want to suck your blood for goodness sakes. You should be running from them, not wanting to trade spit with them. In Chinese folklore, they aren't the beautiful shimmering models portrayed in Twilight, but hideous and ominous monsters out for blood. Somewhere along the way we forgot that vampires once captured our fears, not our hearts.
Nosferatu was the first, albeit unofficial, film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula and played an important role in popularizing vampires in cinema, if not our minds. Here we see vampires for what they were all along, monsters. Count Orlock is more creature than man, with pointy ears, elongated claws and rodent like front teeth. The first time he appears on screen you don't really jump back in fright (this isn't that type of film) but feel his ominous presence. His presence is felt throughout the entire film even in the scenes he isn't there. In fact, we don't even see him until fifteen minutes in and the narrative jumps around quite a bit away from him, yet you can sense him lurking somewhere, in the shadows, in their dreams, anywhere, everywhere. And that is the key in making a memorable character, particularly a villain.
A mysterious buyer from Transylvania expresses interest in an abandoned house. The real estate people send their man Hutter to go out there to meet him. The road is dark and long. The local tavern falls into a deep silence when he reveals he's meeting a Count Orlock. His guides refuse to go further down the road this late at night. Something is clearly up and we haven't even caught a glimpse of the vampire yet. He commands your attention both on and off screen. The two have dinner together, Hutter accidentally cuts his finger, blood oozes out, Orlock's eyes widen, he tries to get a taste, the title card reads: "Blood! Your precious blood!" (What do you imagine would be the topic of discussion after that? Would it be awkward to cut your dinner short at that point?) Later, Orlock sees a picture of Hutter's wife in a pocket watch. "Is this your wife? What a lovely throat." Hutter's suspicions grow, so he snoops around and sees a coffin. I think the general rule is that you have to open any strange coffin you see. Yep, it's Orlock in there alright, sleeping in the middle of the day. Vampire confirmed. There is still the matter of him moving to this abandoned house and of course the fact that Hutter and his wife live directly across from it. Yes, Hutter's wife with her lovely throat.
The previous silent films I've watched (Modern Times, City Lights, The General) have all been comedies which I think is the best medium for silent pictures. You can see a guy slipping on a banana peel or getting pied in the face and you laugh; there is no explanation needed. Nosferatu is a drama/horror which is more difficult to conceptualize with only images but I feel like it does it pretty well. The film is not particularly scary, especially by today's standards, but it does create visually striking images. Count Orlock looks dark and creepy; he looks like a villain. (The scene in the ship where he pops straight up out of his coffin is pretty freaky.) Like Fritz Lang's M, the film makes heavy use of shadows (both films being influenced by German Expressionism). It even has rudimentary special effects where Orlock vanishes into thin air. The film creates an eerie atmosphere that you can absorb visually rather than through its plot.
I can appreciate Nosferatu for its historical significance, even for moments of entertainment, but I have to admit that I was somewhat ambivalent overall. It just didn't excite me very much. This was definitely more of an atmosphere kind of movie; I'm sure if seen at the right time and in the right frame of mind, it can be really spooky, but I found myself more amused than terrified. It is easy to look back with fond memories at a film almost ninety years old, but seeing Count Orlock for the first time must have been quite the sight.