Nosferatu is an evil name suggesting the red letters of hell—the sinister pieces of it like “fer” and “eratu” and “nos” have a red and heinous quality like the picture itself (which throbs with gloom), a masterpiece of nightmare horror photographed fantastically well in the old grainy tones of brown-and-black-and-white.
It’s not so much that the woods are “misty” but that they are bright shining Bavarian woods in the morning as the young jerk hero hurries in a Transylvanian coach to the castle of the Count. Though the woods be bright you feel evil lurking behind every tree. You just know the inner sides of dead trees among the shining living pines have bats hanging upsidedown in torpid sated sleep. There’s a castle right ahead. The hero has just had a drink in a Transylvanian tavern and it would be my opinion to suggest “Don’t drink too deep in Transylvanian taverns!” The maids in the Inn are as completely innocent as NOSFERATU is completely evil. The horses drawing the coach cavort, the youth stretches in the daytime woods, glad . . . but! . . . the little traveled road! The castle coach transfers him at Charlie Chaplin speed to the hungry cardinal of vampires. The horses are hooded! They know that vampire bats will clamp against their withers by nightfall! They rush hysterically through a milky dimming forest of mountain dusk, you suddenly see the castle with bats like flies round the parapet. The kid rushes out looking for to go find his gory loss. In a strange wool cap a thin hawknosed man opens the big oaken door. He announces his servants are all gone. The audience realizes this is Count Nosferatu himself! Ugh! The castle has tile floors:—somehow there’s more evil in those tile floors than in the dripping dust of later Bela Lugosi castles where women with spiders on their shoulders dragged dead muslin gowns across the stone. They are the tile floors of a Byzantine Alexandrian Transylvanian throat-ogre.
The Count Nosferatu has the long hook nose of a Javelin vampire bat, the large eyes of the Rhinolophidae vampire bat, long horsey mouth looking like it’s full of W-shaped cusps with muggly pectinated teeth and molars and incisors like Desmondontae vampire bats with a front tooth missing the better to suck the blood, maybe with the long brush-tipped tongue of the sanguisuga so sanguine. He looks in his hunched swift walk like he probably also has his intestinal tract specially modified in accordance with his nocturnal habits ... the general horrid hare-lipped look of the Noctilio . . . small guillotines in his mouth ... the exceeding thinness of his gullet. His hands are like the enormous claws of the Leporinus bat and keep growing longer and longer fingernails throughout the picture.
Meanwhile the kid rushes around enjoying the scenery:—little dusty paths of the castle by day, but by twilight?
The Count plunges to sign his deeds with that thirsty eagerness of the Vampire.
The kid escapes over the wall just in time . . .
The scene shifts to Doktor Van Hellsing in sunny classroom Germany nevertheless photographed as dark as Wolfbane or the claws that eat a fly. Then it goes to a gorgeously filmed dune where women’s Victorian dresses flutter in the fresh sea wind. Then finally the haunted ship sails down the navigable canal or river and out to sea; aboard is the Count in pursuit of his boy. When they open his coffin a dozen rats plop out of the dirt and slink and bite the seamen on the ankles (how they ever filmed this I’ll never know: great big rats) . . . The whole scene on the ship testifies to the grandeur of the horror of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. Of itself the schooner glides into the port of Bremen with all the crew dead. The sucked-out Captain is tied to his wheel. A disciple of the Count imprisoned in a Bremen cell sees the schooner glide right by like a ghost and says: “The master is here!” Down cobbles deserted at dusk suddenly, like an insane delivery boy here comes Count Nosferatu carrying his own coffin of burial earth under his arm. He goes straight to establish residence in an eerie awful warehouse or armory which made me think: “I shall never go to Bremen if they have things like that! Armories with empty windows! Ow!”
The old Bremen lamplighter is aware of the foolish hallucinations of Bremen folk but he also looks scared as he lights the evening lamp, naturally, as the next day processions carry the coffined victims of the vampire down the gloomy street. People close their shutters. There is real evil swarming all over the screen by now. Nosferatu looks worse and worse: by now his teeth are stained, his fingernails are like rats’ tails, his eyes are on fire. He stares from his warehouse window like someone in an old dream. He rises from his coffin at eve like a plank. His disciple who escapes from the prison looks like Mr. Pickwick on a rampage in a chase that has everybody breathing furiously (a masterpiece of breathing), ends in a field, with torches.
At night, by moonlight there he is, the Great Lover, staring across that awful plaza or canal into the heroine’s window and into her eye. She waits for him. She wants to save the hero and has read in the “Book of Vampires” that if a victim stays with the vampire till cock’s crow he will be destroyed. He comes to her swiftly with that awful quickfooted walk, fingernails dripping. The shadow of the hand crawls like ink across her snowy bedspreads. The last scene shows him kneeling at her bedside kissing into her neck in a horribly perverted love scene unequalled for its pathetic sudden revelation of the vampire’s essential helplessness. The sun comes up, you see its rays light the top of his warehouse, the cock crows, he can’t get away. He vanishes in a puff of smoke like the Agony of the West. Right there on the floor as the puffing hero arrives too late to save his love.
The creator of this picture, F. W. Murnau, may have drawn a lot of information from the great vampire dissertations of Ranft and Calmet written in the 18th century. Vampire is a word of Serbian origin (Wampir),—meaning blood-sucking ghosts. They were supposed to be the souls of dead wizards and witches and suicides and victims of homicide and the Banished! (those banished from family or church). But vampires were also thought to be the souls of ordinary living people which leave the body in sleep and come upon other sleepers in the form of down-fluff! . . . so don’t sleep in your duck-down sleepingbag in Transylvania! (or even in California, they say).
Actually, don’t worry . . . scientifically speaking, the only blood-sucking bats in the world are located in South America from Oaxaca on down.
From The New Yorker Film Society Notes, January 9, 1960, pp. 1-4. Copyright © 1960 by The New Yorker Film Society Notes. Reprinted by permission of The Sterling Lord Agency, Inc.