The year 1979 was a good one for vampires, cinematically speaking. John Badham's version of "Dracula" premiered starring Frank Langella in the film version of his Broadway hit, George Hamilton had a surprise success with the spoof "Love At First Bite" and German director Werner Herzog unveiled his remake of the classic German silent horror movie "Nosferatu: The Vampyre". The original version by director F.W. Murnau is still regarded by many as the greatest horror movie ever made. Indeed, the mere sight of the film's star Max Schreck (who was as eerie in real life as he was on screen) is enough to give you nightmares. Herzog's version was not only the best of the vampire films released in 1979, it is a fitting homage to the Murnau classic. Working with a relatively extravagant budget, Herzog produced a film that is eerie and unsettling. He refrains from going for quick shocks, relying instead on the overall unnerving atmosphere that resonates throughout the production. Perhaps the most iconic aspect of the film is Klaus Kinski's remarkable resemblance to the character played in the original by Schreck, who embodied what is perhaps the most unnerving movie monster of all time. Kinski's appearance mirrors that of Schreck but the actor brings his own persona to the role.
The film, based on Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, opens with Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) leading an idyllic life with his beautiful young wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani). His boss, Renfield (Roland Topor), induces him to make an arduous journey to Transylvania to visit the eccentric but rich Count Dracula, who has expressed interest in buying a house in Harker's town. Harker is enthused about the mission because of the financial rewards but Lucy has a premonition that the journey will have disastrous consequences. She pleads with him not to go but to no avail. Harker sets off over mountain roads that lead through deep forests. The nearer he gets to the Count's castle the more unnerved the local peasants are. They blatantly warn him to turn back, citing eerie disappearances and deaths associated with Dracula. Harker dismisses their concerns as the superstitions of unsophisticated people. However, upon arrival at Dracula's castle he immediately has second thoughts. The Count is a corpse-like, sinewy figure with almost impossibly long fingernails who talks in a whispery voice that is more menacing than comforting. In the cold dank castle, Dracula serves Harker a meal then becomes obsessed with sucking the blood from a small cut Harker has suffered from a kitchen knife. The Count assures him that's all just a homespun way of treating the wound. Harker, increasingly unnerved, realizes he has made a mistake in visiting the castle but it's too late to escape. Dracula notices a locket with Lucy's photograph in it and makes inquiries about her, much to Harker's distress. In the morning, Harker awakens to find he has been imprisoned in the castle- and worse, he has been the victim of a vampire. Having arranged the sale of the house to Dracula, he realizes he is in a race against time to return to his village before the Count arrives there. He is desperately ill, however, and fails in his quest. Meanwhile, Dracula has stowed away inside a coffin on board a cargo ship headed towards the town of his destination. Along the way, crew members begin to die mysteriously. By the time the vessel arrives in port, it is a ghost ship, devoid of any human life with only the captain's log hinting at the horror he has witnessed. Accompanying Dracula on board the ship were thousands of rats who now run amok in the town, spreading the plague. Harker is returned to Lucy by some kindly peasants, but he is very ill and in a zombie-like condition. Lucy is then threatened by the appearance of Dracula in her own bedroom and she realizes that the town is being victimized by a vampire, though no one believes her. As the plague takes its toll on the citizenry, the town falls into chaos- and Lucy becomes determined to kill Dracula even if she must do so by herself.
Herzog, who also wrote the screenplay, has fashioned a film that oozes menace to the extent that even before the appearance of Dracula, the movie has a sense of foreboding. It is a rather cold and emotionless film, more visually interesting than moving. Herzog seems to intentionally present his protagonists in a dispassionate manner. He provides cursory details of their lives but seems to be far more interested in making almost every frame a work of art. To a great degree he succeeded. There are images in Nosferatu that will haunt the viewer, but there's no getting around the fact that there isn't anyone the audience can truly relate to. Neither Harker or Lucy are ever seen as anything more than one dimensional characters. The silly eccentric Renfield is largely wasted in the latter part of the story. He does become a servant of Dracula but this plot device is disposed of rather quickly. Prof. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), who is generally presented as the hero in Dracula films, is shown here to be a half-senile old fool who realizes too late that a vampire may be running amok. Herzog provides plenty of memorable moments, among which are scenes of the town's rapid decay into death and disaster because of the plague. As Lucy walks through the town square, she witnesses doomed people acting out their final fantasies, whether it is indulging in a last sumptuous feast, dancing wildly or illogically stealing furniture from vacant stores. Composer Popul Vuh provides an appropriately eerie score throughout.
Herzog's Nosferatu is a poetic experience in many ways. It's leisurely pace and low-key tone make it one of the more unusual horror films you'll ever see. However, it can be deemed a success by virtue of the fact that he and Kinski brought relevancy to this remake of what many people believe is the greatest German film ever made.
The excellent Shout! Factory Blu-ray features both the German and English language versions of the film and a commentary track by Herzog, whose soothing, rather monotonous tone becomes somewhat mesmerizing. He provides interesting insights into the making of the film and this is complimented by the inclusion of a vintage "making of" production short that shows fascinating footage of Herzog and Kinski during production, including Kinski's rather arduous daily makeup sessions. Also included is a photo gallery showing great behind the scenes shots of Herzog at work. There are also a selection of superbly designed original trailers that truly convey the menace of the titular character.
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