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Vintage Horror: the Forefathers of Robert Eggers' "Nosferatu"

The youngest old-timer, director Robert Eggers, brings his fascination with period details to "Nosferatu." /  Photo by Hutchinsphoto© courtesy of Dreamstime.

The youngest old-timer, director Robert Eggers, brings his fascination with period details to "Nosferatu." / Photo by Hutchinsphoto© courtesy of Dreamstime.

The trailer for Robert Eggers' "Nosferatu" was received with fear and anticipation. The director behind fastidious period pictures like "The Lighthouse" (2019) and "The Northman" (2022) goes back to his horror roots almost a decade after the debut of "The Witch" (2015) signaled the arrival of a peculiar talent. It looks like a banger and familiar, too. "Nosferatu" is a synonym of "Dracula," the legendary folk character whose first literary incarnation came in Bran Stoker's epistolary novel. 

That was very cool, even if you know the story by heart. Eyebrows may rise at the Christmas release date since the movie looks more appropriate for Halloween. Focus Features is not deploying a counterprogramming strategy but adopting the British tradition of enjoying scary stories on the holidays—the BBC always plays spooky original movies on that date. Also, the pageantry of period pieces seems to go well with Yuletide's extravagance.

Because the premiere date feels too far away, we want to satiate our thirst for horror, contemplating "Nosferatu" 's forefathers, bared fangs and all.

"Nosferatu: A Symphony of Fear" (1922)

At the zenith of German Expressionism and enjoying peak popularity, director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau would not let something as vulgar as copyright law stand in his way. He appropriated Bran Stoker's "Dracula" novel and changed the character's name - hello, Count Orlok! -and unleashed the bloodsucker on unsuspecting audiences in 1922. The resulting movie was so scary that Swedish authorities banned its projection. Germans packed the movie theaters, but Stoker's widow got news of the flagrant piracy case. To say she was not amused is an understatement. A successful lawsuit ordained the destruction of all the prints, but some survived. We were close to missing this classic in the lost film void. Now, that's a scary thought!

"Dracula" (1931)

When a theatrical adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel became a box-office success, Universal bought the rights to get a piece of the action. They also poached the star, a Hungarian stage actor known as Bela Lugosi. The directorial tag team of Todd Browning and Karl Freund created a cinematic nightmare that has not lost its spellbinding power almost a century afterward. It also jumpstarted the studio's Monster Cycle, with movies centered on Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and the Swamp Thing. A string of sequels diluted the magic, making Lugosi a horror genre fixture. To this day, Hollywood executives keep trying to replicate its success - that's what Universal "Monsterverse" was all about. 

"Horror of Dracula" (1958)

This British production had to change its title from the austere "Dracula" to play in the United States, where Universal still circulated copies of the original 1931 movie for theatrical distribution. It was the first of many Dracula films produced by Hammer Studios in Great Britain. It introduced Christopher Lee as the Count and Peter Cushing as his nemesis, the vampire hunter Van Helsing. They would go on to reprise the roles—or sly variations of them—in many more movies, whether straightforward sequels, satires, or thinly veiled reformulations. 

"Nosferatu the Vampire" (1978)

Werner Herzog is now an elder statesman of international cinema. In the '70s, he was one of the young rebels pushing the New German Cinema movement forward. With the classics "Aguirre: the Wrath of God" (1972) and "Stroszek" (1977) under his belt, he set on the unlikely task of remaking "Nosferatu." The project allowed Klaus Kinski another chance to chew the scenery, this time with fangs bared. An achingly young Isabelle Adjani plays Lucy, who takes over from Mina as the main female protagonist. Bruno Ganz, who went on to become a fixture of Art House Cinemas everywhere, is Jonathan Harker. 

"Blacula" (William Crain, 1972)

American International Picture took the bloodsucker for a ride in one of the most insane mashups of American cinema, combining vampires with Blaxploitation. William Marshall is an African prince turned into a vampire by none other than Dracula himself. He ends up wreaking havoc in Los Angeles, sowing terror across the racial spectrum. It was successful enough to warrant a sequel, "Scream Blacula Scream" (Bob Keljan, 1973), in which Pam Grier adds a touch of class.

"Dracula" (1979)

Every era gets the Dracula it deserves. That's why, in the twilight of disco, Hollywood cast Frank Langella to play the Count as a brooding lothario with a Studio 54-ready blow-dried pompadour. Lauren Olivier brings a touch of class as Van Helsing—or perhaps slums with the material. The movie is director John Badham's surprising follow-up to the box office hit "Saturday Night Fever" (1977). Yes, the man who unleashed John Travolta on the discotheque dance floor made this the follow-up to his biggest hit to date. Scary, hum?

"Bram Stokers' 'Dracula'" (1993)

Director Francis Ford Coppola may be gearing up to return to cinemas with "Megalopolis," but this is not his first time staging a showy revival. In the early '90s, he found inspiration in the mythical Dracula and invoked the author's name in the title as a sign of his total commitment to artistic artifice. His take on "Dracula" is enriched by theatrical verve, showcasing practical special effects, scale models, matte paintings, and assorted old cinema tricks. The erotic aura of the Count contrasts with the stodgy Victorians surrounding him, including Anthony Hopkins as vampire hunter Van Helsing and hapless Keanu Reeves as lame boyfriend Jonathan Harker. No wonder Mina (Winona Ryder) trembles when good old Drac whispers, "I've crossed oceans of time to find you." Keep going, bad boy! Winner of three Oscars for Sound Effects, Costume Design, and Makeup. 

"Shadow of the Vampire" (2000)

A hilarious dark comedy staged during the actual production of Nosferatu. The fanciful premise contemplates the possibility that actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) goes Method decades before the acting school flourished and develops a taste for human blood while playing Count Orlok. Or perhaps he is an actual vampire! The fantastic cast includes Cary Elwes, Ado Kier, Eddie Izzard, and Catherine McCormack. With Dafoe taking up the role of Van Helsing for the Eggers movie, it's a must to catch up with this before Xmas. 

"Van Helsing" (2004)

You can't fault Universal for thinking director Stephen Sommers could revive vampiric adventures after tapping the spirits of the classic Hollywood serial adventure with "The Mummy" (1999) and its sequel (2001). So off he went to helm "Van Helsing," an action and special-effects-rich take on the myth, centering the eponymous vampire hunter as a dashing hero played by Hugh Jackman on a break from donning the spandex of Wolverine in the "X-Men" universe. The franchise starter shriveled like a vampire in plain sunlight.

"Dracula Untold" (2014)

Beefcake Drac! Hollywood recruited Like Evans for this franchise-ready take on the legend of Vlad the Impaler, as a Romanian prince fighting against an invasion by the Turkish Empire. The trappings of early XXI century action did not gel well with myth, and the movie never achieved the box office success that would grant a sequel.

"The Vourdalak" (2023)

"The Vourdalak" (2023)

A startlingly original exercise in folk horror, this debut feature by Adrien Beau goes way before Bram Stoker's literary sensation to unearth a different kind of bloodsucker, preserved in the pages of a novella by Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy. A hapless member of the French court traveling through eastern Europe is assaulted in the forest and seeks refuge in a farm, where a family cowers, waiting for the return of their mysterious patriarch. The old man has turned into a vampire, and nobody he loves is safe. Fantastic puppetry effects make the monster a sight to behold and infuse the whole movie with a wondrous sense of otherworldliness. Check our review if you still need to convince yourself to see it.

Movie poster

Watch “Nosferatu

First filmed version of Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Vampire Count Orlok expresses interest in a new residence and real estate agent Hutter's wife. Silent era German classic with music track.

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