It’s a testimony to the lasting power of F.W. Murnau’s adaptation of Dracula (sub-titled Eine Symphonie des Grauens/A Symphony of Horrors) that, nearly a hundred years on, filmmakers are still borrowing the rat-faced look of its vampire villain and copping special effects, imagery and mythology from his movie. As the first real vampire film and the first adaptation of a much-remade property, it gets to invent things which have been done over and over so many times it’s too easy to forget they were once fresh … the peasants who cringe and cross themselves when the naïve traveller mentions whose castle he is going to visit … camera tricks to convey the monster’s supernatural swiftness or powers over beasts and inanimate objects … crumbling old buildings to externalise the grotesque shabbiness of the central menace … the cut finger that excites the repulsive host’s almost erotic attention … the half-seen creature murdering the ship’s crew one by one … the creature dissolving at first light of dawn.
Some (but not all) of these things come from Bram Stoker, but Murnau – and his collaborators producer/designer Albin Grau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen – found ways of putting them on film which still resonate. Several elements the filmmakers added have stuck to the property ever since, starting with the vampire’s streak of doomed romance (he is destroyed because of his fixation on the self-sacrificing heroine) and extending to his special effects-assisted death at the first light of dawn. The talon-brandishing, fang-flashing, swollen-skulled, hairy-eared Graf von Orlok, played by Max Schreck in still-remarkable make-up (note also the cinched waist and padded shoulders of his frock coat, which give him an insect-like thorax), is perhaps the only screen Dracula to be primarily a terrifying, gruesome, unnatural presence – most subsequent versions make the Count at least superficially suitable for drawing room hand-kissing and polite chit-chat to contrast with the throat-rending, but Orlok scuttling from the shadows like something you’d really like to see back under its rock.
Schreck gives a subtle performance under the make-up, whereas Alexander Granach (in the Renfield role) is clownishly over-the-top, pathetic when pursued by the mob whose worst instincts have been brought out by the mere presence of the plague-spreading fiend. Made before anyone had an idea of what a horror film was, this crystalised how the genre at its best works – it’s frightening and fantastical, but also incisive in its understanding of obsession, cruelty and heroism.