The Three Faces of Nosferatu, by Alexander Miller
Without remakes, imitations, rip-offs and knock-off, movies wouldn’t be movies. For every Armageddon, there’s a Deep Impact and for every Dante’s Peak, there’s a Volcano erupting. And as far back as the silent era, a maverick German director was making an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula; of course, this silent-era hot take came under flak. Every print was ordered to be destroyed. Luckily, some copies survived and Marnau’s macabre masterpiece became a staple. And, nearly a century removed from its inception, it remains one.
The history of Stoker’s creation has been endlessly analyzed and studied, with a modicum of actors bringing something new to the table, whether it be Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella or Gary Oldman. Murnau walked a fine line in terms of intellectual property; the most distinctive departure in Nosferatu (1922) is the realization of the monster. Against the dense layers of expressionistic shadows and light is an emaciated disease-ridden monster. Like a gaunt corpse, Schreck’s features emphasize a convincing frisson of a living dead person. when decomposition sets in, the flesh tightens, hair and fingernails protrude, teeth elongate and eyes sink. There’s none of the cultural fetishization and seductive fealty of evil commonly associated with the macabre. With Orlock, there isn’t the faintest whiff of sex appeal.
He’s a malevolent force of nature. Countering the lore penned by Stoker, Murnau creates one of the most contrary and memorably unique iterations of the famed vampire that would be a horror icon, one that would be reimagined time and again.
While Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) is a “remake,” one must consider that it’s a remake by Werner Herzog. If you need more evidence to convince you of the difference, just watch Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant next to Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans. Never one to be shy, Herzog’s sensibilities are visible throughout, imbuing the classic narrative with his penchant for subtly entrancing studies in obsession and power. The Count might seem like a departure or an odd turn for the director to steer into but, if you consider the gallery of eccentric misfits and warped dreamers of Herzog’s cinema (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre the Wrath of God, Kasper Hauser), Nosferatu is remarkably consistent with his abiding fascinations.
Among the collaborations of Herzog and Klaus Kinski, Nosferatu is one of the most distinctive. Kinski’s manic energy is dialed to match the moody atmosphere of the film, giving us a sickly, strung out vampire. Herzog’s unique relationship with history is integrated into Kinski’s realization. While Schreck’s angular Count is the iconic trendsetter, Kinski’s more dimensional performance leans into the Count being less a supernatural presence and more of a plague spreading menace, ethereal but ushering in terror on a derelict vessel rife with plague-carrying rats. Herzog and Kinski’s shared authorship dually creates an original and understated horror film while paying homage to Murnau’s classic. Dropping the “Orlock” name in favor of Count Dracula feels like a nod to the knotty copyright history surrounding the 1922 Nosferatu.
Perhaps by coincidence, Herzog’s Nosferatu wasn’t the only vampire film from 1979. Tobe Hooper’s Stephen King adaptation Salem’s Lot features a central creature very much in the Nosferatu mold. This might not be a “pivotal” vampire movie but Salem’s Lot, Herzog’s Nosferatu (and of course the Murnau film) might have helped keep the image of this alternative vampiric interpretation in the public consciousness.
By the mid-90s/early 2000s, heady, self-aware, meta movies were creeping from the indies to the mainstream, among them Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Scream, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and one of the best meta-tinged movies-about-movies from the era, E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, which boasts an anarchic blend of behind the scenes intrigue and pranksterish context. Merhige (whose 1989 debut Begotten is a troubling slice of cerebral terror for the brave), with the help of Steven Katz’ script, wreaks gleefully clever havoc along with a staggering cast, making brilliant use of singular talents such as the inimitable Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich. Euro-cult icon Udo Kier adds to the fun as well as Catherine McCormack and Eddie Izzard. And who better to play the clean-faced yank than Cary Elwes?
Dafoe’s wonderfully mad imagining of Schreck is consumed with a hyperbolic and macabre egomania that is every director’s worst nightmare, an overzealous method actor! However, this Schreck is matched by the equally self-possessed and tyrannical Malkovich playing Murnau with the anguished torment we’d so frequently associate with the persona of the ne plus ultra maverick director. The raving variety of visionary so deluded with the artistic pursuit they’d, I don’t know, sell out their cast to a murderous actor who may (or may not) be a vampire? Shadow of the Vampire is speculative revisionist fiction that’s sharply realized and relentlessly clever without being too cheeky about its subject. Given the sporadic pattern of Merhige’s career, there might be some cathartic parallel to the psychology of Schreck?
While Robert Eggers’ long sought after Nosferatu passion project is taking shape (according to Letterboxd, the 2020 Nosferatu project is credited to David Lee Fisher?), we can only wonder what form the film will take. After The Witch, and The Lighthouse, it’s safe to say that Eggers is an original voice in contemporary horror. With such a unique voice, the notion of a preexisting property seems a curious if compelling prospect. Perhaps the subject’s inception and history of copyright infringement will contribute to the narrative design. Or maybe this upcoming Nosferatu movie will simply be another intriguing offering from Eggers.