Though nearing the hundredth anniversary of its release, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is not only the seminal work of early horror that has exuded its influence over nearly every horror film that has followed it, but also one of the most compelling entries into the genre and continues to elicit an eerie sense of terror that has rarely been matched. As an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, revisions were made to the German film in an attempt to avoid legal action such as cutting out secondary characters and some plot beats and changing all of the names. Nosferatu became a source of controversy as the late author’s wife sued for copyright infringement and caused the film’s production company, Prana Films, to file for bankruptcy while a court ruled all copies of the film were to be destroyed. Many copies were burned but one print, having already been sent for worldwide distribution, remained in circulation and was copied over the years, gaining a dedicated fanbase that screened these illegal copies of the film and kept it in film circles until it was able to firmly claim its status as a masterpiece of classic horror and perhaps somewhat ironically, inspire the various films that included the Dracula character and cement the story in popular consciousness.
Before the image conjured up by a vampire was firmly cemented as that of a flamboyant man with slicked back hair, pale skin, fangs, a cape, an inability to be touched by garlic or holy water, and an ability to transform into a bat, and long before it was a sparkling teenager, Nosferatu gave us a cursed creature that was almost more animal than man who would stalk his human prey at night and cause mass hysteria. Though keeping the characteristic pale skin and aversion to daylight, this vampire trades the elegance of later portrayals for pointed ears, fangs in the center of the mouth, a bald head, claws, and wide, observant eyes, and gives the appearance of a man past humanity who finds his victims not by drawing them in with his charm but by being a predatory beast. Beyond the depiction of the vampire being a more simplified version that draws on primal fears of wild beasts, the entire visual style of Nosferatu taps into instinctual human fears with a striking simplicity. Shadows permeate the visual style of the film, villainous characters lurk in corners and move at lightning speed or seemingly appear out of thin air, and the fear of death by murder, disease, or war is ever present. Though the film never makes the heart race with the jump scares or extreme tension that later horror films would come to use, Nosferatu is a reminder of the real fears that permeate daily life and it is an unsettling experience that lingers long after it ends.