This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
The American horror market is showing some signs of life in 1922, with horror-adjacent films from D.W. Griffith and Wallace Worsley, but the three most prominent works are all still European. Fritz Lang again makes his presence felt with Dr. Mabuse, and Benjamin Christensen creates his best-known work, Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages.
Of the honorable mentions, the latter comes close to unseating even a title so monolithic in its esteem as Nosferatu. Truly, there’s nothing else quite like Häxan, a pseudo documentary purporting to show how “backward” Europeans once punished (and tortured) those accused of witchcraft. If you’ve ever wanted evidence that people were exactly as cynical and sarcastic 100 years ago as they are today, look no further than Häxan, a film that looks upon the abuses of the past with both condemnation and a certain gallows sense of humor about the whole ordeal. Alternatingly funny and genuinely creepy, Häxan remains mesmerizing to watch in 2019.
Nosferatu, though, looms above everything.
1922 Honorable Mentions: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Häxan, One Exciting Night, A Blind Bargain (Lost film)
The Film: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens
Director: F.W. Murnau
It’s incredible to think just how close the world came to losing Nosferatu forever. We know it as the first true adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that’s also exactly why it almost vanished from the face of the Earth after its initial release: Its producers never acquired the rights to the novel. Instead, they merely changed all the character names, which was the impetus for Max Schreck’s iconic Count Orlok. The result was a court order that sided with the Stoker estate, which ordered the immediate destruction of every copy of Nosferatu—orders that were promptly carried out in Germany. Thankfully, for the future of the vampire genre and horror cinema in general, several copies of Nosferatu had already been sent abroad, where they waited in the U.S. for seven years before Nosferatu finally had its premiere in 1929, in the twilight of the silent film era. Finally, horror fans in the U.S.A. found out what all the fuss was about—only two years before Universal would unveil its own Dracula. All existing versions of Nosferatu were created from those sole, surviving prints.
As a film, it’s a monumental achievement for the time period. Along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it stands as the most iconic work of German Expressionism in film, although where that film is fantastical and illusionary, Nosferatu’s settings are more classically gothic and romantic. Murnau reserves some of the most expressionist touches for the depiction of the vampire himself, and especially his larger-than-life shadow, which stands in for the vampire in several iconic scenes.
And my, what a vampire. Max Schreck puts on a performance for the ages as Orlok, a rat-faced and spindle-fingered ghoul lacking any shred of humanity. Unlike the seductive, captivating presence that would become the archetype for portrayals of Dracula after Bela Lugosi in 1931, Orlok is a proper beast, and a genuinely frightening one. There’s something distinctly inhuman, something alien about the rigidity of his movements, his gaunt frame and wild-eyed expressions, that is still unnerving to watch today. It’s not at all surprising that director E. Elias Merhige and actor Willem Dafoe wanted to pay homage to Schreck’s otherworldly performance by portraying him as an actual secret vampire in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire. Schreck is just that good.
Ultimately, although Count Dracula remains more famous as a vampire character, Orlok and Nosferatu have never left us. His likeness continues to crop up in tribute form, time and time again. He was the vampire in TV’s ‘Salem’s Lot. He leaps from the screen in a classic episode of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?. He shares an apartment with Taika Waititi in What We Do in the Shadows. You can’t shake his image. You can only pray for daybreak.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.