Greetings, readers, Bill here. I’d like to apologize for my absence as of late – I’ve been in the process of hunting for an apartment, and most of my essential possessions (read: my movies and my books) are somewhat packed away in preparation for moving out of my current dank basement room. Between searching for a place to live and stress at work, I haven’t really had much in the way of energy for writing, but I caught this flick last weekend prior to checking out a place and was blown away by it, and wanted to share my thoughts on the film with you guys out there in review-reading land. That being said, let’s check it out, this is Werner Herzog’s 1979 masterpiece, NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT, starring Klaus “Seething Insanity” Kinski (last seen around these parts in STAR KNIGHT) and the lovely Isabelle Adjani.
Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz, of DOWNFALL) has been sent from Wismar, Germany to Transylvania to complete a lucrative real estate transaction; the reclusive Count Dracula (Kinski), a bald, pallid, big-eared creature with clawed hands and rat-like teeth, wishes to purchase property in Wismar. The documentation signed and sealed, Dracula sinks those teeth into Harker’s neck and leaves him to die. The count completes his preparations to leave for Wismar, packing a number of black coffins with the cursed earth of Transylvania.
In Wismar, Lucy Harker (Adjani), Jonathan’s wife, has been having horrific nightmares as she waits for Jonathan’s return. Instead, a ghost ship, its crew dead or missing, runs aground at Wismar, disgorging thousands of rats. Soon, people begin to die – the Plague has come to Wismar. As a delirious, sickly Jonathan returns, the documents in his bag allow Lucy to piece together that Count Dracula, one of the undead, is behind this outbreak of disease and mass death, and aids her in figuring out how to stop him.
This film was amazing. I was completely and utterly blown away by it – I’ve long considered 1922′s NOSFERATU to be the finest vampire film ever made, and honestly, this film tops it for me.
A lot hinged on Kinski’s performance as Dracula. Kinski’s known for his intensity and his propensity to fly into rages, but his performance as Dracula is remarkably subdued. He gives the role a sense of centuries-old weariness, a sense of emotional deadening that’s progressed over uncountable years of endless predation. He knows what he’s lost and he feels that loss acutely, even if he’s capable of feeling nothing else. Plus, instead of slapping a bald wig on him, it looks like they actually shaved his head. Given what I’ve heard about Kinski’s dedication to his craft, this hardly surprises me. I also don’t think I’d be surprised if it was revealed that to get into character, Kinski subsisted on a diet of blood. He didn’t, that I know of, but the man was intense.
Isabelle Adjani gave a wonderful performance as Lucy Harker, and in so doing definitely turned a lot of assumptions on their head. Look at pretty much any other adaptation of Dracula – or, hell, look at the original novel. Mina Harker (not sure why Herzog switched the names of Lucy and Mina) is generally presented as a damsel in distress, existing to be saved from the undead by the plucky male heroes – Van Helsing, Arthur Holmwood, Quincy Morris, Jonathan Harker. Those men are the heroes of Dracula.
Except not here. The characters of Arthur and Quincy have been excised entirely, Jonathan Harker spends most of the film post-returning to Wismar as an invalid propped up in a kitchen chair, and Van Helsing is a strict scientific materialist who gives no attention to ludicrous stories of vampires. Thus, it falls to Lucy and to Lucy alone to save Wismar from the predations of Dracula.
This is an incredible new take on the story, and one I can’t recall having seen done anywhere else. And it’s made even more impressive with the casting of Isabelle Adjani – she’s a very slender, wan, almost ethereal-looking woman, and this, coupled with the history of the Mina character, lures the viewer into expecting her to be a frail damsel in distress. And then for her to turn around and be the strongest character in the film? Absolutely stunning. Of course, I’m also a major sucker for self-sacrificing heroes (and heroines)…
The final sequence of the film…the less I say about it, the better. It’s an incredible twist on the story which, like with Lucy’s heroics, I don’t think I’ve ever seen pulled in any other vampire film. Let me just say that I watched this with my buddy Dan, and as it dawned on us what was unfolding on screen, we just looked at each other in shock and amazement. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing, and absolutely gleeful that we were. Werner Herzog, I salute you.
Final Analysis: I’d like to consider this the definitive vampire film of the modern day, and I wish it was more widely known here in the USA, because this is a beautiful, intelligent, soul-rending adaptation of the classic vampire story, and perhaps better than any other adaptation I’ve seen before. Don’t get me wrong, I still love 1922′s NOSFERATU. But 1979′s NOSFERATU takes it to a whole new level. Kinski is amazing, Adjani is amazing, Herzog is amazing. By all means, see this film. Maybe in 2056 we’ll get a SHADOWS OF THE VAMPIRE for this version, suggesting that Kinski was an actual vampire hired for the production. That’d be cool.
Overall, I give NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979)…
FIVE BARRELS OF TOXIC WASTE.