|Renfield from "Dracula" Browning 1931|
This line from the original 1931 Dracula movie, starring Bela Lugosi, is where Refield is anticipating his "master" Dracula's arrival hopeful that he will give him larger creatures for a meal of blood in payment for his loyalties.
No rats were shown in this film. An armadillo shuffled across screen in one early scene, which, in retrospect, could have gotten the skin to crawl if you didn't know what it was, as it does look like a giant rat on steroids!
In the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, starring actor Max Schreck--whose ghastly make-up changed throughout the film to make him more horrifying as the film progressed--did have a scene which depicted rats crawling around on the ship. In fact there is a whole scene of rats crawling out of a hole, and over a shipmate's feet. Very creepy stuff for 1922!
|Max Schreck as Count Orlock in Nosferatu|
In Nosferatu, the film follows the original book by Bram Stoker. In fact so much so, that Stoker's widow brought suit against Murnau and won. His company folded. (The court had ordered that the original negatives and prints be destroyed--fortunately this never happened!) Murnau had to change things in order to comply.
So, Count Orlock arrives in Bremen (northern Germany), on board the ship, after killing the crew, and upon his debarkation, fear arises that the plague has arrived in the city. The whole idea was to drum in the fact that the count was the very personification of pestilence and death, so the relationship with rats, disease, and death are pulled together with a scene of long lines of coffins carried by men down a town street. And a man marking each door where people have died of the plague--so that no one goes in, I suppose.
It is further drilled home in a line by Van Helsing in the film: "I have long sought the causes of that terrible epidemic, and found at its origin and its climax the innocent figures of Jonathon Harker and his young wife, Nina." This makes Jonathon and Nina central and very important in the rolls they play. Nina having to make a most horrifying decision to allow the vampire stay with her the whole night until dawn, so that the sun would destroy him, thus ending this horrible plague. She is the ultimate heroine of the film.
Unarguably, rats play a roll in the revulsion factor for an audience who is new to the silent movies. Seeing these creatures scurry across the ship man's feet probably had women in the audience screaming, or hiding their eyes back then! Director F.W. Murnau, had to change the film, as he plagiarised the novel. Thus, I think bringing in the rats may have been a stroke of genius when it was shown, because it is still rather creepy to watch.
Count Dracula/Count Orlock both travel to England on a ship. And everyone knows that rats jump on board, and when it docks, off they go onto shore. Rats carry the flea which carried the Black Plague, and is how it had been spread--mostly and most devastatingly in the 14th century. The plague bacillus originated in the steppes of Central Asia, and traveled the trade routes opened up by the Mongols, reaching Constantinople in 1347. It wiped out whole towns, cities--wherever there was a population. Very few places were spared and there was no known cure. In fact this is where the common saying "Bless you" came from. Back then, if you sneezed, you were most surely going to die. And a worthless medical faculty in Paris claimed that the plague was cause d by "bad air", and had become the most widely accepted theory of the times.
Most people infected died within 2 - 7 days after infection. In some cases the infection went to the lungs, making breathing difficult. The name, "Black Death" comes from the gangrene on areas of the body in infected people. In others an inguinal bubo, which are swollen lymph glands (buboes) often occurred in the neck armpit and groin.
|Hand showing acral gangrene due to plague|
So, in the film Nosferatu, where people are dying and the scene shows men carrying casket after casket down the street in somber procession, the viewer understands that Count Orlock is basically spreading the plague.
I understand the revulsion factor in placing rats into this movie, and the duality of death by plague as a way to make this movie as horrifying as ever to audiences! The bite of the infected flea, or the bite of the vampire--in either case you would die, point taken! Nosferatu, is still considered one of the most terrifying versions of Dracula known even today.
Resources: pictures etc.Wikipedia; Films: Muranu's Nosferatu-1922; Dracula-Browning, 1931; Books: In Search of Dracula, 1972; The Atlas of Medieval Man, 1979; The Vampire Book, the Encyclopedia of the Undead,1979; Dracula by Bram Stoker