Horror films of today employ several film techniques to invoke responses from the
viewer. However, early silent films relied more on these techniques because without a
script, the viewer needs another way to interpret the film. The 1922 silent film Nosferatu
directed by F.W. Murnau is one of the first of it’s kind to apply what most would
consider to be more modern film techniques. Montage plays a key role in this film, as
does unusual camera angles, over acting, early special effects, and framing.
Loosely based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, the film is the story of a
realtor named Jonathon who travels to Dracula’s castle in order to close a house deal. He
goes there despite many warnings and soon discovers that Dracula is actually a vampire.
Meanwhile, his girlfriend Nina is plagued with nightmares about Dracula and often goes
into strange trances. Jonathon escapes from the castle but is not free of Draculas power,
for Dracula purchases a house across the street from Jonathon.
I seemed to notice a pattern with the shot construction. When a character first
comes onto the screen, they are shown in a long shot, followed by a medium or close
shot. It’s as if the viewer is being introduced to the character gradually. For example,
when Jonathon first arrives at Dracula’s castle, our first shot of Dracula is a long shot,
followed by close. The film is mostly shot with a closed frame, but there are several
different camera angles, such as a shot from above looking down onto workers loading
earth into crates.
Montage plays what i believe to be the most important role in the film. When
Jonathon is in his room on the night he arrives he is studying a book about vampires.
What follows are several shots of menacing passages from the book crossed with the
clock turning midnight and finally, a shot of Dracula in the hall. This causes the viewer
to connect all three and realize that Jonathon is in danger. After this, Dracula enters his
room and there are several flashed shots. There is a close shot of Jonathon , then a shot
of the door with Dracula coming toward him, back to Jonathon hiding under the sheet,
back to Dracula, then there is a random shot of Nina, Jonathons girlfriend, in her bed.
She wakes up and goes outside, apparently in a trance. Then suddenly, the scene is back
to Johnathon but this time a shadow of Draculas hands, arms lifted, fingers outstretched,
as if he is possessing Jonathon. What follows are several more flashed shots of Nina,
John, and Dracula. Another example of this type of editing is when Dr. Reinfeld is
teaching his students and there is a close shot of a venus fly trap catching it’s prey. Then
it is followed by the doctors face and the words “vampire of the plant world”. There is
another shot of this kind in the mental hospital. It shows a spider on it’s web feasting on
it’s prey. This makes the viewer more tuned in to the power that Dracula seems to have
on everyone.
The ship that Dracula arrives on is introduced to the audience by a series of shots
looped with waves crashing on the shore and a waterfall. There are several close to
medium shots of the ship from many different angles. On board a “plague” has broken
out, but the viewer already knows that it is caused by Dracula. When the captain and
first mate are all that is left, they decide to investigate down below. When found,
Dracula rises straight up out of his coffin in one stiff, yet swift move. It is a very
intimidating special effect and causes the man in the film to jump off the ship. After this
there is a shot of Dracula walking on the ship but it is shot from below. This gives
Dracula a more intimidating and powerful image. After this there is a shot of the mast
rising and falling on the horizon followed by a shot of Nina’s room. This leads the
viewer to realize the danger that is coming as soon as the ship lands in the harbor.
Early special effects that are used by Murnau may seem silly or simplistic to the
modern film viewer, but when considering the lack of technology in 1922, the effects are
actually before their time. When Jonathon is on his way to the castle, he is taken for a
frightening ride on a