by Steve Habrat
I’m sick of vampires. They are everywhere we turn anymore. They glare from their airbrushed movie posters and the covers of the latest tween romance novel. They have their hair perfectly sculpted on top of their pale domes and they brood while offering just the right amount of sexuality to make the girls wild. To make them more interesting, we’ve had to include werewolves just so they have a story to work with. Damn you, Twilight. To make matters worse, they are about as scary as a male model donning some wax Halloween fangs and whispering boo with all the lights on while standing in the middle of a room. Bela Lugosi is rolling in his grave. Not to fear, boys and ghouls, as I have the remedy for those who want a scary vampire movie. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre is an eerie, earthy, and otherworldly tale that is part remake, part re-envisioning of the Dracula legend. On the surface, this film is supposedly a nod to F.W. Murnau’s legendary 1920’s silent film creep out, but Herzog makes a film that raises the hairs on the back of your neck and overwhelms you with gliding, wide-eyed beauty. Take the rolling shots of shrieking corpses at the beginning of this film. It’s entrancing and grotesque. A true splendor of life and death. I’m also convinced that they are real corpses. Then a swooping shot of a bat, presented in slow motion, so that we may drink in the grace of this barreling predator of the sky. This film is a true work of art in the first five minutes of it’s run time.
To explain the plot would be a waste of time. Most are familiar with the story of Dracula. The eccentric Klaus Kinski plays the bloodsucking demon, a bald, mouth-breathing terror that is spiderlike and pitiful. He’s a lonely soul that relishes hearing the faint howls of “the children of the night”. He creeps about his ruined castle, which may or may not be real, and terrorizes the rational Jonathan (Played by Bruno Ganz). The whole stay at the castle feels like a cloudy nightmare, an aesthetic approach that is used in Herzog’s foggy camerawork and Twilight Zone music. The entire film seems to suggest legend, a myth that comes from nature and is passed from the lips of superstitious peasants. When the film ventures to Varna, it sheds it’s trance like feel and becomes an epidemic terror.
Nosferatu the Vampyre refuses to become supernatural, grounding Dracula in the real world. What if this ghoul existed and he came from the seclusion of the mountains? He is an anti-social fiend that is not suave, sexy, or confidant. He runs about Varna, hiding his coffins in abandoned buildings and hissing at crucifixes. He lurks in the industrial ruins and peers out of windows down on his prey. His cape and coat dancing in the wind. His long claws wrapping around each other like constricting snakes. He speaks slowly and cautiously, choosing his words as carefully as he chooses where to hide his coffins. His eyes dart about his skull, always aware of his surroundings and what his next move will be. Piecing his plans together to spread his plague and bring about the apocalypse.
Herzog makes a melodramatic soap opera; complete with overacting that shows traces of Shakespeare, a trait that was rampant in Universal’s 1931 classic Dracula. Dracula longs for Lucy, who is becoming aware of what the plague truly is. Dracula visits her one evening in her room, a scene that lingers in my head and is one of my favorite sequences in a film in all the history of cinema. He is chivalrous, menacing, and volatile. We see him in the corner of the room, the very edge of the frame, but not visible in Lucy’s mirror. She stares in disbelief, as she resists his advances and subtly vowing that she will destroy him, even if it means death. The shot says so much while lacking copious amounts of dialogue. Jonathan desperately tries to reach Lucy, a man who has fallen ill under the vampiric germ. By the end, he is an evil descendant who is ready to finish what the master has started. Nosferatu the Vampyre is a tragedy, one that ends in the death of Dracula, who dies at the hand of love and infatuation. Lucy sacrifices herself for love and it strangely feels like suicide as well. Who wants to live and love in a world that has gone to Hell? Lucy takes a final walk through the plague riddled street as people dance the dance of death, have their final meals, and celebrate their final moments of joyous life, all while rats scurry about the streets.
A favorite horror film of mine, one that scared me to death the first time I saw it and left me flabbergasted in the wake of it’s beauty, Nosferatu the Vampyre is a blood curdling opera that is the work of an auteur who respects and deeply loves the legend. It offers a fresh take and is worth seeing for it’s artful approach alone. It could and should play in museums while visitors gape at its splendor. It’s slow moving and may repel a few who like their horror fast and bloody. There is very little blood throughout it’s run time. It was released in 1979, though it has aged remarkably well through the years. I’d give anything for this to be released on Blu-ray. I know I’d rush out the day it’s released just to see it in crystal clear high definition. This film is scary, folks. It will creep you out, question what is real and imaginary, and will make you uncomfortable to be by yourself for a while after watching it. Your skin will crawl when you first lay eyes on Kinski’s Dracula and, for my money, he is the best Dracula ever. Lugosi takes a back seat at number two. A must-see for anyone who loves cinema, Nosferatu the Vampyre will make you afraid of vampires again. Just like you should be. Grade: A+