Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht

As opening shots go, footage of dead, decomposed babies and children, their faces contorted into richtuses of terror and howls of pain is probably one of the clearest projections for the tone of the ensuing film that I’ve ever come across. Couple this with slow motion shots of bats flying in the dark (used repeatedly throughout the entire film whenever director Werner Herzog takes his fancy, regardless of it’s relevance to the plot) and a woman (Isabelle Adjani) waking up screaming to said bat flying around her window and you’re left with no uncertainty that this isn’t quite your average vampire film.

And that’s OK, because as I’ve discussed before, the tale of Dracula is fairly well known, even if you’ve never seen any of the many, many adaptations. This is my fourth Herzog film. I liked but was relatively underwhelmed by Rescue Dawn, couldn’t get my head around Aguirre and thought Bad Lieutenant was a good fit for Nicolas Cage’s own brand of insanity, but I understand that he has a reputation for being, well, a nutbag. That’s exactly the kind of approach you need to take with such a well versed story, and I approved of the inclusion of some new material. 

The story, in case you’ve been living in a soil-filled coffin for several centuries, concerns Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), who is sent to Transylvania to organise a land deal with Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski), a mysterious recluse who terrifies the locals and has an obsession with the neck of Jonathan’s fiance, Lucy (Adjani). Kinski’s Dracula is a wonderful creation, far more haunted than haunting. He is a very pitiable creature, paper-white with deformed ears, needle-sharp teeth, a bulbous bald head and rat-like claws, as much tormented by his curse as he is a danger to others. His face is often all that can be seen, with his body and black silk robe shrouded in complete darkness. During dinner, when Jonathan cuts his thumb, Dracula is unable to stop himself from stalking over and sucking upon it. The scene is rivetting and unbelievably tense, with utter terror in the eyes of Jonathan. Similarly, Jonathan waking to Dracula in his doorway, slowly advancing upon him, is downright horrifying. Kinski may not be as effective a Dracula as Max Schreck, but he’s still bloody good.

I especially appreciated the switch in focus upon Dracula’s inevitable arrival at Jonathan’s hometown of Wismar. Instead of centring merely on the havoc caused by the presence of a vampire in their society, the attention is paid more to the rats he brought with him aboard his boat, and the plague that lays the town low. I think this is new to the story, and was a nice addition in my opinion, although the group of people enjoying a meal in the village square, over-run by rats to which they are oblivious because they’ve caught the plague but are planning to enjoy themselves regardless was perhaps a bit much.

The role of Van Helsing (Walter Landengast) has been severely reduced from what I expected, but his final moments are genius, plot-wise. The best shot, however, has to be the creative use of a vampire’s innability to appear in mirrors, as Lucy sits brushing her hair, gazing at her reflection. We see in the mirror a door behind her open and close – with the obligatory ominous creak – and a bald, taloned shadow creeping up on her, until claws appear beside her face. It’s brilliant. Roland Topor is also good as Harker’s boss Renfield, doing an impression of both Peter Lorre and Pee-Wee Herman simultaneously.

Something did feel a little off with the setting though, as if the people were walking around the modern day (or the 1970s, at least) and just happened to be wearing period garb. It was a while before I could shake this feeling, and I still can’t put my finger on where it came from. Maybe the locations, especially of Wismar, felt a bit too modern in comparison to the costumes and dialects. My favourite thing about the film? The assistant director is called Remmelt Remmelts.

Choose film 7/10

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror

There are at least six variations on the Dracula myth on the List, and probably hundreds that aren’t. I’m ashamed to admit that the only other vampire movies I’d seen prior to this (other than Les Vampires, which doesn’t really count) are a half watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Twilight, which I did not choose to watch and am still trying to scrub from my retinas. And yet, though my life has been surprisingly devoid of vampire fiction (I’ve never even seen an episode of Buffy, or an instalment of the Underworld or Blade films), I’m still well versed in the vampire mythology, as indeed is everyone else. It seems one is almost born knowing that vampire’s transform into bats, suck your blood and can be vanquished with a stake in the heart, exposure to sunlight or too much garlic on their pizza.

This version is one of the earliest vampire films, having been released in 1922 and directed by German silent director F. W. Murnau. It follows the traditional Dracula beats (though the vampire is named Count Orlok as this is an unofficial retelling), and stars Max Schreck as the titular creature of the night.
Jonathan Hutter (Gustav von Wangerheim), a clerk from the town of Bremen in Germany, travels to Transylvania (ominous thunder roll) to complete some legal paperwork with the mysterious Count Orlok, who wishes to buy a house in Bremen. Though there are many clues as to what is in store for Hutter, including terrified locals speaking of nocturnal spirits and his creepy, Orlok-controlled boss hinting that the journey will cause him pain and cost him blood, Hutter merrily laughs everything off as ludicrous superstition and hokum, until he arrives at the castle and meets the Count, who keeps unusual sleeping hours and sleeps in a coffin in the basement.
Most of this film is predictable if you know the traditional Dracula legend, but what makes it truly memorable is Schreck’s performance. His distinctive appearance – all pale skin, pointed ears, giant eyebrows over sunken eyes and clawed hands on arms stuck firmly to his sides – sticks in the mind, and his presence is greatly missed whenever he’s off screen. Scenes of Orlok’s stark shadow descending on a prone figure, or his body, stiff as a board, rising from a coffin, stick firmly in the memory, and at the end of the film, when he is staring, unmoving, from a window, is genuinely disconcerting and more than a little terrifying.
It’s unfortunate then that the score for the film is more than a little insane. It kicks off with a cartoonish plinky-plonk tune over the supposedly doom-laden title cards detailing “Nosferatu! That name alone can chill the blood!”, and later the score goes crazy when Hutter is merely reading a book. Also some scenes are let down by a distinct lack of quality in the print. I understand that the film was made 90 years ago, but the scene in which Hutter is discovering bite marks on his neck is ruined by the fact that the bite marks are not even slightly visible on his bright white skin.
The ending is a little hurried, though by that time I was starting to get bored anyway. I was also surprised by how little the character of Van Helsing had to do with the plot, as I’d always thought he was pretty integral to the story, yet he turns up from nowhere halfway through as an expert on vampires in nature.
All in all, this is a good example of an early telling of a classic horror, that unfortunately has become very dated since its release. I’m sure that one of the more recent versions on the list – 1931’s Bela Lugosi starring Dracula or the 1958 Hammer version starring Christopher Lee – will be much better.
Choose life 6/10