On March 4, 1922, German filmmaker F. W. Murnau released his silent “Symphony of Horror,” Nosferatu. One of the very first vampire films, it was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with character names changed to avoid legal problems. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t avoid them.) Starring German actor Max Shreck as the undead Count Orlok, it made a brief splash in the director’s home country. But when Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement, she ordered all copies destroyed. For decades, this seminal film remained lost.
Bela Lugosi vs. Max Shreck
Less than a decade later, Universal Pictures released the authorized adaptation of Dracula, which was an enormous hit. The caped, suave version of the Count, played by Bela Lugosi, became THE blueprint for vampires on film. From that point on, almost all on-screen vamps, from Christopher Lee to Kiefer Sutherland, exhibited a sexy and desirable allure. But once a print of Nosferatu resurfaced and became a classic, the hideous vampire played by Shreck started having power as well. And he inspired his own imitators.
Before listing our favorite Nosferatu-inspired pop culture vamps, here’s who we’re not listing, and why. No one who played another version of Nosferatu/Count Orlok in any kind of remake, like Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire. Since it’s essentially playing the same character as Shreck. Also, no vamps who can transform from looking human to monstrous. So none of the Lost Boys, no Angel from Buffy, and no Gary Oldman. With that out of the way, here are our favorite “children of Nosferatu” in popular culture.
Kurt Barlow (Salem’s Lot, 1979)
Although the vampiric lord of Stephen King’s 1975 novel Salem’s Lot was human in appearance, when Tobe Hooper made the TV mini-series in 1979, he made a big change. He decided that Kurt Barlow, the undead mastermind who invaded the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, would follow in the Nosferatu tradition. His rat-like teeth and hideous face scarred an entire generation of TV watchers. And he is still one of the scariest on-screen vampires ever. And the polar opposite of elegant movie vamps of the era like Frank Langella and Christopher Lee.
Nosferatu Clan (Vampire: The Masquerade, 1991)
Long before Twilight mania, the early ’90s saw its own undead fad. Mostly thanks to the sexy vamps of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and movies like The Lost Boys. It was into this atmosphere that White Wolf Publishing launched the RPG Vampire: The Masquerade in 1991. And it was an immediate hit. The game featured many vampire clans, most of them sexy and powerful. But one clan, the Nosferatu clan, looked just like guess who? Other vampires, due to their appearance, ostracized the Nosferatu. Many dwelled in the sewers beneath major cities. But the other vampires respected their ability to dig up dirt on everyone. Who wouldn’t?
Nosferatu, the Demon Vampire (Are You Afraid of the Dark?, 1993)
The ‘90s Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a lot of kids’ first taste of horror. Although totally tame by today’s standards, the show’s fifteenth episode in 1993 showcased a faux Nosferatu called….well, Nosferatu. (Public domain sure comes in handy sometimes). In this chapter, titled “ The Tale of the Midnight Madness,” a mysterious stranger comes to an old theater with an old black and white movie that literally sucks people in. And it just so happens to be a vampire movie, Nosferatu: The Demon Vampire. The bloodsucker in question looks just like Shreck’s Count Orlok, and no doubt traumatized a generation of kids.
The Master (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997)
Most of the vamps on Buffy the Vampire Slayer were human-looking, at least until feeding time. But in the show’s first season, living deep under the town of Sunnydale was the vampiric Master. And he definitely wasn’t pretty. With makeup clearly inspired by Nosferatu, his favorite fledgling Darla said the Master (Mark Metcalf) had “grown beyond the need for human features.” A stark contrast to the sexy vamps on the show like Angel, Drusilla, and Spike, The Master only lasted one season, but he made it a memorable one.
The Master (The Strain, 2015)
Yet another vampire simply named “the Master,” only this ugly mug belongs to the world of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain. Also known as Sariel, the Master was the youngest of the seven original vampires called the Ancients. He was responsible for the strain of vampirism that spreads in New York City. As his title suggests, he was the principal bad guy on the FX series.
Petyr/ The Baron (What We Do in the Shadows, 2014/2019)
Although most of the vamps we see on What We Do in the Shadows are human in appearance, both Taika Waititi’s original film and the current TV series do pay homage to Count Orlok. In the film version, one of the undead flatmates showcased in the mockumentary is Petyr. He was an 8,000-year-old vampire who was all about bloodlust and feeding on live chickens. On the TV series, the ancient, Nosferatu-inspired vamp was Baron Afanas, or just “the Baron” for short. Played by the great Doug Jones, the Baron is another permanently batlike vampire who is as old as time. But unlike Petyr, the Baron loves to party. And survives a vampire hunter. But just barely.