I could be wrong, but Nosferatu may be the first depiction of a vampire on film. And despite whether or not you’ve seen it, you know it from its iconic imagery that echoes through the history of horror films (gallery below). When it was made, F.W. Murnau couldn’t obtain the rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so he simply changed all the names of the characters to try to avoid the copyright. Later, Stoker’s widow would sue and win, with the court ordering all the copies of Nosferatu to be burned.
But vampires are notoriously hard to kill and copies survived. That’s right MPAA, movie piracy saved a piece of history that lawyers would have destroyed! I’m joking… piracy is bad, m’kay? Luckily for us, we no longer care and with this movie being made in 1922 it has passed into the realm of the public domain, which is why, if you want, you can watch the entire movie, for free, on YouTube.
The vast majority of the versions you’ll find today actually credit Bram Stoker and have the names (and all the text cards) altered to reflect Stoker’s original. Still, the story of Nosferatu differs from the book in a few significant ways, which I won’t spoil for you.
The real thing you want to watch out for when picking a copy of the film to watch is the soundtrack. Seeing as it’s a silent film, the music is important, but much of the original score – which was played by live musicians in the theater – has been lost. To that end, a number of versions are floating around, some better than others. It is apparently even a thing in some music circles for composers to craft their own soundtrack for this seminal work. Here are a few you can buy from Amazon. I might have to track down a few in the future once I research which are the ones worth listening to.
Immediately after watching Nosferatu, I felt I needed to watch Shadow of the Vampire, a horror film about the making of Nosferatu that supposes Murnau hired an actual vampire to play the role of Count Orlok in order to attain the level of realism he desired for his film. It is so good.