One of the most enduring genres in the history of film—one of the few genres that is universally dominant regardless of the national cinema—is the horror movie. The medium of cinema almost seems to be tailor made for terrifying people who don’t like to reader—or are unable. The darkness inside the theater contributes to the power of horror in a way unlike its assistance with any other genre. Given that symbiotic relationship, it might come as quite a surprise to learn that there really weren’t enough horror movies made until the 1930s for it to even qualify as a genre. Attempts were made as far back as the 1890s and a 1910 15-minute version of Frankenstein made at the Edison studios still exists, though just about every aspect of horror has been stripped from it. (And, for the record—and because he really like to take credit for things he did actually do—Thomas Edison cannot take credit for directing the first film version of Mary Shelley’s story.)
The origin of the horror movie as a bona fide genre is directly tied to the unique elements of cinema as a medium. The ability to inspire horror in an audience is inextricably linked to psychology and, as the version of Frankenstein referenced above attests, simply pointing a camera at what is essentially a stage performance loses that edge. Thus, the rise of the horror genre can be traced back not so much to a single film or filmmaker, but to style of presentation. That style became known as German Expressionism and while it would be utterly untrue to suggest that Nosferatu is the film which gave birth to the genre, it is beyond argument that the Expressionist techniques on display in this example of German silent cinema has influenced everything from Universal’s series of Frankenstein movies in the 1930s to Tim Burton’s next movie, regardless of what it may be about.
Nosferatu engages all the definitive techniques attributed to German Expressionism to tell its thoroughly unauthorized version of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. That 21st century horror movie fans can see these examples of weird angles and low-level lighting to create long shadows that provide a consistent sense of dread and disorientation throughout the movie. The title characters also remains the creepiest and most disturbing Dracula in film history. Thankfully, modern viewers can see this for themselves as the story behind the story of Nosferatu is also a tale of the risen dead in a manner of speaking. Once Bram Stoker’s widow discovered that director F. W. Murnau had adapted her husband’s wildly popular novel for the screen without permission or credit, she embarked on mission of civil litigation to have every single copy of the movie destroyed.
Less successful was Murnau, who attempted to distance his movie from copyright infringement Stoker’s novel by strengthening the effect that exposure to sunlight has on a vampire. As a result, Nosferatu claims the honor of not just being the movie to show a vampire being destroyed by sunlight, but can also lay claim to popularizing what has since become one of the elemental mythic traits of the creature.