How ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) Was Nearly Deleted From Horror History


Nosferatu (1922), F.W. Murnau’s silent-era German expressionist horror film, helped set the visual tone for many future vampire movies. But, believe it or not, this movie was almost destroyed forever.


Loosely adapted from Bram Stoker’s legendary Dracula novel, the vampire here is not actually named Dracula, but Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Also, instead of Jonathan Harker we get a Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim). Other characters’ names are changed as well.

Why the changes? It turns out that Prana Film, the production company, did not secure the rights to use Dracula. Despite their changes, Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe, was not happy about their little project. In fact, she waged a successful lawsuit wherein the Judge ordered all copies of the film destroyed. Luckily for fans of the movie (and for horror fans generally), the order was not entirely successful, and we can still watch this iconic film today.

Keep in mind, other horror movies have been lost, and perhaps forever. Just two years before Nosferatu, a movie called Drakula was made. It’s considered to be lost forever. A year later, Dracula’s Death (Drakula halála) was made by Hungarian director Károly Lajthay. This too is apparently nowhere to be found. Then there’s 1927’s London After Midnight, which can only be partly reconstructed through stills. It was apparently destroyed in a 1967 MGM Vault fire.

Nosferatu, standing tall. (Photo: Film Arts Guild)

But what would have happened if Nosferatu had been deleted? For starters, it would have set a clear precedent that all creative works deemed too derivative could be permanently destroyed by court order (which is as bad, if not worse, than censorship over “lewd content”). As a result, it would have made artists fearful of creating anything even semi-derivative, lest they get sued. Just as importantly, it would have given future film makers and audiences less classic images to enjoy and draw from.

Nosferatu operated almost as a palette for future vampire films, as already noted. It’s a movie that dishes out classic, freakish images of vampires as otherworldly creatures, whereas most other vampires basically look like dudes (or chicks) with plastic fangs and goth clothes (or like Bela Lugosi).

Yes, believe it or not, Schreck did not look exactly like Orlok in everyday life. This was a wonderful stylistic choice. Schreck just did a great job of slinking into character. Now, perhaps other movies would have stepped forward with similarly monstrous vampires, but Nosferatu is still — after all these years — near the top of the pile in this regard, and in terms of scenery and tone.

I’m on a boat! (Photo: Film Arts Guild)

Also interesting:  Fans had kept the movie alive by distributing prints of it throughout the world. It was then, in a very real way, an early example of a “cult hit.” Obviously, copyright issues remain a constant aspect of the arts, but this is an excellent example of how, ultimately, the fans will demand art’s survival. People can be threatened with lawsuits, face steep fines, get jail time, or even be forced to destroy the “offending” content, but it has a habit of resurfacing. Or, to pair the moral with vampire lore:  When you shed light on a movie’s derivative nature, it does not instantly wither away. It can still have value down the ages.

Prana Film was forced into bankruptcy on behalf of Broker’s estate. While one may side with those who shut them down, what can’t be denied is that, in their little bit of time on earth, Prana Film made one of the most iconic horror films of all time. Not bad for a little rip-off production company, right?

One last look at Orlok:

♪ Come to my window

I’ll be home soon  ♫

(Photo: Film Arts Guild)

Have you seen the classic film Nosferatu? How would you feel if it were lost forever? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and if you haven’t seen this classic vampire flick, check it out!