Sunday, September 30, 2012

DVD Spotlight: Nosferatu the Vampyre & Phantom der Nacht (Two Disc Set).

Nosferatu the Vampyre & Phantom der Nacht (Two Disc Set)  (1979)
DVD Release Year: 2002.
Released by: Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Region: 1.
Starring: Klaus Kinski; Isabelle Adjani; Bruno Ganz; Roland Topor; Walter Ladengast.
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
Colour/107 Minutes/PG

An estate agent from Wismar, Germany, called Jonathon Harker (Bruno Ganz) is charged with selling a property in Wismar to a Transylvanian nobleman called Count Dracula. He's sent there on orders from his boss, Renfield (Roland Topor) and goes on the long four-week trip there, despite the protests of his beautiful young wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), whom has been having dreams full of bad omens that may potentially befall them both. When he arrives in Transylvania, Harker is warned by the resident population as well as the local gypsies that the Count is to be avoided. There are rumors of vampirism, but Harker dismisses this like he dismissed Lucy's bad dreams. He meets the count (Klaus Kinski) and finds him to be even more eccentric and strange in appearance and habits than he was rumored to be. Living alone, pale, bald, ugly, with large ears and, sharp, rodent-like front teeth, the Count seems like he's the end result of generations of noble inbreeding. The count appears withdrawn and mostly uninterested in the entire meeting until Harker accidentally cuts his hand with a dull knife during supper. The Count becomes almost manic at the sight of Haker's blood and insists on sucking on the wound. The Count also becomes more excited about the real estate deal when he sees a picture of Lucy in Harker's locket. Indeed, Count Dracula is a centuries-old vampire, and thanks to seeing the picture of Lucy, his interest in moving to Wismar suddenly increases tenfold. That night he swiftly makes Harker one of his many victims, leaving him there as a prisoner in castle Dracula, slowly falling under his vampiric curse, as the Count himself sets out to Wismar by ship, stowed away in one of his many earth-filled coffins. Can Harker make it back home in time to save Lucy and stop Dracula from wiping out the town?

Werner Herzog has said he made this film as an attempt to connect two generations of German film makers who were separated by a gap the rise of Nazism created in Germany. He chose F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) as he felt it was the best film to ever come out of Germany. Although a remake, it's also a re-imaging not only of Murnau's film but Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula, as well. Herzog changes several characters and elements in the film. Although the creepy, horror atmosphere, typical of a vampire picture, is present, the film does not paint Count Dracula as strictly being an evil creature. There is sorrow and pathos within this lonely creature, who can not die by his own hands. He was human once, but now he's cursed to walk the earth at night, alone and unable to connect with people on any significant level that is not followed by eventually consuming their blood. His search for love with the fair Lucy is a desperate attempt at regaining some of his humanity.

Sometimes a shot-for-shot recreation of Murnau's film, this version truly explores the real horrors of the vampire in a broader visual sense. There is scope and scale here visually that Murnau could never have hoped to accomplish in his time. Take the wide shots of Dracula's castle. From the outside it appears totally in ruins, almost like it's a smokescreen to keep away visitors, but once Harker arrives, one sees it's mostly still intact. The inside of it is full of dark, narrow passages, that almost feel as cold and lonely as the Count himself. Both the reality of the castle and its Count are strictly internal. Look at the fantastic opening where Herzog shot the real mummified corpses -- victims of an 1833 cholera epidemic -- at the Mummies of Guanajuato museum. Herzog doesn't give you any sort of verbal or visual connection between them and Count Dracula. One has to make up their own minds: is this just to foreshadow the death and disease the Count brings? Are these past victims of the Count, hidden away in some dark part of castle Dracula? The sequence effectively sets the tone for the rest of the picture. Then there's the real set pieces of the film: the hordes of grey rats that spill from the dead ship that carries Dracula into Wismar. The plague has come and it swiftly consumes the town. We see the aftermath as Lucy walks the mostly deserted streets (deserted of humans -- the rats are everywhere). Funerals and last suppers are the only town activities left. Over this plays the traditional Georgian folk-song, Ansambl Gordela's performance of Zinzkaro, one of the most haunting pieces of music ever used in a film, in my opinion. There seems to be no end to the sadness in those voices.

That brings me to another important piece of this film: the score is flawless and iconic. Perhaps not as iconic in a general pop culture sense, but who has not had this mix of classical (Wagner's Das Rheingold and Gounod's Messe Solennelle de Sainte Cècile) and Florian Fricke/Popol Vuh stuck in their brains after seeing the film? For me it's even more a piece of me now than the sublime combination of Goblin and Romero-selected library tracks that made up the music for Dawn of the Dead (1978). The Popol Vuh stuff is made up of tracks from their studio albums and several, up to that point, unreleased tracks. So there is a fairly wide spectrum of sounds here form a group that radically changed their sound from album to album in that period. Everything from romantic classical sounds to spooky gothic graveyard haunts, and mystic sounds from the middle and far East, populate and cycle back on each other through the film. The music to me, more than anything else, speaks of age. Specifically in connection to Dracula himself. Dracula may have very well been around when these musical styles were first coming to be.

I bring up the actual performances last, because although they are good (and in some cases great), they are almost secondary to Herzog's visual story telling. Kinski gets one of his signature roles here as the horrific and lonely Count. Interesting to note here is that his performance is restrained and reigned-in for once. He may be profoundly weird, but all the beats are pretty much from Herzog's drum. Given the love-and-hate history between these two, it may come as a surprise, but perhaps they both felt a different level of respect for the picture they were making here -- perhaps they felt it was about something bigger than each other this time out. Kinski, under the impressive make-up that recreates Max Schreck's iconic Count Orlok, is hunched over, rat-faced, and stalks his prey slowly, like a spider. Even his clawed-hands are like spiders themselves in the way they move. In his eyes and on his face are moments of profound sadness, weighing down on him. The scene where he stalks Wismar, and he pauses, hearing, smelling, and perhaps feeling the night around him, are wonderful touches. Isabelle Adjani, as Lucy Harker, walks through the film like a virginal ghost. Pure, good-hearted, and profoundly troubled by visions of bats. In the end she's willing to sacrifice herself in some small hope that it will end Dracula's curse. It's a nice performance, overshadowed at times by her physical beauty. Bruno Ganz's Harker is closer to the source material. He's an unknowing victim here. Presented a bit cold and rational. He's busy with his work, and willing to overlook Dracula's strange appearance and behaviour if it will seal the real estate deal. His politeness is his undoing. He tries to remain professional but inside it's obvious he's getting more and more nervous and worried. As the film progresses he seems to get sicker and sicker, especially after he's bitten. His boss, Renfield, is played unhinged from the start. His crazy little laugh and quick decent into madness as his "master" gets closer is one of those quirky things that stays with you. A most interesting choice is the change of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing here. Played by Walter Ladengast, he's not a fearless vampire killer of the novel. Here he's a meek man, afraid to do what his heart tells him is right, because his mind refuses to allow for it until it's too late. By the time he does take action Dracula is already dead and his curse has been passed on. He's left holding the smoking gun (in this case the bloody stake), although by that time the town's population is so small that there seems to be nobody left to arrest him!

This two-disc release of the film is really a re-release of a previous Anchor Bay double-sided one-disc release, which also contained both versions of the film and most of the extras. However the audio and video seems to have taken a slight bump up in quality here and this really should be the release you pick up. Herzog filmed both versions of the film at the same time with the actors actually speaking their lines in English, although dubbing was done in some cases. The performances in a non-native tongue do come off a bit cold and awkward, but at the very least this release of the English version is not cut by ten minutes, as it had been in the past, so you get the entire film no matter what version you choose to watch. I think it's no secret though that a true non-German speaking film fan will still want the German version with English subtitles. The German disc also has Herzog's informative commentary with Norman hill and an interesting, thirteen minute behind the scenes featurette showing footage not used in the final film, and the various trailers here are pretty damn cool.

Some will argue that this is not as good as Murnau's film overall, and perhaps that's true, but it's almost like comparing apples to oranges. I think one would be blind to not see Herzog has in-part improved, or at least expanded upon the original Nosferatu in a most positive way. Herzog never set out to top Murnau anyway. He only wanted to tell his version of the story, pay homage to a great film and bridge an artistic gap between generations. I think he succeeded. Given his budget, Nosferatu is both a great visual accomplishment and an understated classic addition to the horror genre.

DVD Information:

Disc 1: Nosferatu the Vampyre (English Version)
Video: 1.85:1.
Audio: Mono.
--Theatrical Trailer

Disc 2: Nosferatu Phantom der Nacht (German Version)
Video: 1.85:1.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; Dolby Surround 2.0.
Subtitles: English.
--Featurette: The Making of Nosferatu.
--Audio Commentary with Director Werner Herzog and Norman Hill.
--Theatrical Trailers.
--Talent Bios.


Thrill Fiction said...

I am touched.

Rarely have I read such a heartfelt love letter to cinema both as art and entertainment. I've seen Nosferatu - at least in part - in the 80s and on television. I remember thinking it was another Channel 4 ode to Euro trash. I probably switched over to watch the A-Team. Well now that I don't watch the A-Team anymore perhaps it's time to revisit Nosferatu on your recommendation. It sounds like nothing released this year can compete.

Lee said...

Thanks very much. What can I say? I love this film. I saw this before Dawn of the Dead. It was probably the first real great horror film I watched.

I took a while on this. I found as I was writing the finishing touches this morning it was starting to get away from me. There is much more I could say about this film, but I had to restrain myself. This film fools one into thinking it's held down by Hammer trappings in the first act, but it's much more an art film than a typical Hammer boobs and blood vampire pic (not that there's anything wrong with those). There's also a really bad rip-off "sequel" to this out there, starring Kinski as well. In that case I'd flip back to the A-Team.