Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror. For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about: Nosferatu the Vampyre.
There has always been an element of tragedy to the Dracula character and nowhere is he more tragic than in Werner Herzog’s 1979 re-telling of the Dracula story, Nosferatu the Vampyre. It’s a remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu, but unlike Murnau, Herzog was able to get the rights to Stoker’s original novel so it’s kind of a melding of the two. Honestly, I greatly prefer Herzog’s version to Murnau’s. Murnau’s is visually groundbreaking, incredibly atmospheric and historically significant for being one of the earliest horror movies. The issue for me is that it is so influential that by the time I had seen it there was very little to discover. This isn’t a fault of the film it’s just because of its prevalence in pop culture. When watching it all that was new to me were the melodramatic scenes between the iconic stuff and it removed some of the impact for me. Some films are able to completely transcend their influence but Nosferatu is so full of influential moments that it didn’t. Herzog’s version on the other hand draws from some of that iconic imagery but also introduces the immense tragedy of Klaus Kinski’s Dracula, commentary on how vampires would fit in with nature and an otherworldly beauty that captures the era while imbuing it with a feeling that is somewhat unreal. It’s not just interesting as a remake of a classic but it’s also one of the most fascinating vampire films ever as well as one of Herzog’s best.
In this version of the story Dracula is portrayed as a deeply depressed creature living by its nature. A nature that compels him to drink blood like any animal is drawn to food and drink. Kinski plays him as a long-faced muser who is pained and saddened by his own existence. “To be unable to grow old is terrible… Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futilities…” He is tired of existence but doesn’t have the power to take his own life. How he describes his life is horrifying, to become bored of life only to be forced to live it forever sounds awful. By becoming an abomination of nature he now abides by his unique nature that has damned him to an earthly hell. All of this changes when he sees a picture of Jonathan Harker’s (Bruno Ganz) wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani). Up until this moment he has lived by the desires of his body and now he is fueled by another desire. In my favourite line of the film he says, “The absence of love is the most abject pain” and it is not only heartbreaking but also conveys the urgency of his pursuit of Lucy. In many Dracula adaptations she ignites a memory of a lost love in him and that’s what drives him. In Herzog’s film the main reason is that she gives him some sort of purpose beyond basic sustenance. She has sparked something in him that lessens his endless pain. Lust is not what is propelling him forward as much as it is desperation for something to fill the black void of his life. His forlorn pursuit of her is thrilling and tense because we’re concerned for her and Jonathan but it’s also incredibly sad. We know how this story ends and although Dracula has done evil things he’s not really any more evil than an animal hunting and killing another animal instinctually. How can we really root against a creature that has never known love or possibly even happiness. To defeat him is to stop him from ever finding any happiness but it’s what has to be done to avoid damning Lucy to the same fate.
Herzog often has a somewhat casual visual style; he doesn’t seem to draw attention to beautiful things as much as he just presents them. When establishing the 19th century there isn’t really a focus on the period-appropriate things, they’re just there. It’s a hard thing to describe but Herzog’s simple way of presenting the era makes it feel all the more authentic. There is no question of “how can I establish this is the 19th Century?” he just tells the story and the era becomes evident. Even though the film has a partially electronic score from the avant-garde group Popol Vuh it works very well. The world is presented as real but the music in the air suggests something else. Behind the veil of the natural world lingers the likes of Dracula. Popol Vuh’s music is unmistakably from another time in contrast to the authentically rustic life we’re seeing. Anachronistic music can sometimes be distracting but here it just enhances the idea that Dracula is a man lost in time. The more modern sounds are complemented by glumly sinister chants; the clash of timelessness and solemnity captures the character of Dracula perfectly.
Dracula adaptations usually have an element of camp to them but Herzog approaches the subject with intense seriousness. He brings out the tragedy of the character through this beautiful, romantic, chilling and intelligent film. Then there’s Klaus Kinski who gives an excellent performance as Dracula. He’s not just full of immense sadness but also disgust. From normal people to himself he just seems disgusted with the world in general. As a man who has walked the earth for hundreds of years he has become bored and sickened by it all. He’s repulsive with his rat-like teeth, crooked features and talon-esque hands. Yet his pain is so palpable that it’s hard to actively root against him. Locked in a ghastly body and being forced to live for eternity is what made him into the monster he is. There is still the remnant of a man in there and his anguish is evident, but the monster must be stopped. Herzog’s adaptation of the Murnau original contains excellent recreations of some of the original’s groundbreaking images. But it’s what Herzog brings to the film beyond those shots that truly make it special.
James M Macleod