Nosferatu is a movie with a past. It was almost entirely destroyed by Bram Stoker’s widow due to the blatant plagiarism from Dracula presented in the movie (in which, basically, the names were changed, and that was it). Various versions have been found over the years, leading to this latest, restored version.
And it’s a beauty for the most part.
If you haven’t seen Nosferatu before, it’s important to be prepared before you watch it. This is a film that is almost a century old, and should almost be approached as a historical artifact as much as a movie. After all, just about everyone involved in it is long dead. It’s a piece of the past to be savoured. The performances (especially from the main characters) are far away from natural, which can be very disconcerting to modern viewers. Also, there are special effects that have dated strangely. There are scenes where Orlok moves at high speed, which involves a mixture of sped-up film and stop motion. While this would have likely looked creepy and strange at the time of release, it’s now unfortunately reminiscent of Benny Hill.
However, if you put the extra work in with watching it, it’s rewarding. It’s a splendidly creepy, beautifully shot piece of classic horror that centres around an almost-supernatural performance by Max Shreck in the role of Count Orlok which is so good that an entire movie was based on it decades later (The Shadow of the Vampire).
It’s also the fully-tinted version, which is far less often seen than the straight black-and-white version. The movie was projected using tinted film in order to give scenes the impression of daytime or night time. Blue is used for night, and degrees of yellow are used for daytime or internally-lit scenes (the best being a moment where a darkened room is entered by someone with a candle, and it switches from blue to yellow. This also makes sense of scenes that, previously, seemed to have Orlok wandering around in the daytime, making his weakness to sunlight seem rather daft.
The work that has been done on this new version is clear, and I found it a very different experience watching it in the cinema where my mind was far less able to wander. Previously, I’d thought of it as being a fairly straight retelling of Dracula, but this time, I found it more mythical, more operatic and more infused with a Germanic mythical quality that makes it feel more like a dark fairytale than anything else, and as a result, that bit more disturbing.
This doesn’t mean that it’s without problems. While the new title cards mostly fit in well, the addition of a logo making clear that they’re not the originals distracts quite a bit – if this can be removed in the DVD/blu-ray, great. If not, it’s a distracting ident. Also, it looks as if they’ve used a typeface based on the handwritten fonts of the original. While that’s not a major issue, it introduces a uniformity that isn’t there otherwise. It becomes a little like reading lettering that’s been entirely done by typewriter rather than by hand in a comic book. This, combined with the ident means that each time these come on-screen, I felt a little dragged out of the experience. It was difficult to ignore.
However, that’s pretty much the only major issue. It’s a very respectful version of a beautiful piece of film history, that’s well worth taking the effort to watch carefully. If you watch it at home, turn the lights off and immerse yourself in it. There’s a lot there to appreciate, and this latest version will allow you to appreciate it all the more. Over 90 years after it came out, Nosferatu still haunts.