Friday, October 28, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Nosferatu (1979)

My love for Dracula waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon and this tidal response extends to the media surrounding the character. Some days I want nothing more than to dig out Leslie Klinger's New Annotated Dracula and get lost in the combination of the novel and the in-setting footnotes. Other days the conceit wears on me and the novel itself feels overlong and tiresome. The Universal Dracula is the same way - it's comforting and fun, or staid and boring, all depending on how I'm feeling at the time. Other monster characters don't seem to engender the same issues - I can enjoy Frankenstein at almost any time, for instance, whether it's a James Whale movie or Young Frankenstein - the concept and the characters don't run hot and cold for me.

Yeah, this is a long-winded way of saying I didn't enjoy Nosferatu as much as I expected to. The first time I watched Werner Herzog's Nosferatu I loved it - the visuals, the mood, Kinski's performance, it was all working for me. I liked the exaggerated, stylized acting and the nods (and occasional outright homage) to the original Nosferatu. In short, I was a fan, and I approached watching it again with some anticipation.

Fortunately I didn't have to wait as long as these folks.

Unfortunately, I was just not in the right place at all. I had planned to rewatch Murnau's original to get ready, but I ended up fast-forwarding through it to simply catch the highlights. I could tell when the Herzog's film started, with its long, slow shots of mummified corpses, that I wasn't going to be able to settle down and enjoy it this time around. I briefly thought about watching something else, but I hadn't left myself enough time. So, perhaps keep it in mind if you read the review.  

The Medium
Streaming on Amazon. Widescreen and in good quality. (Their version of the original Murnau film is not in such good shape, unfortunately.)

The Movie
The plot should be familiar enough - Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula. Count buys property in the same city Harker lives in (Dresden, I think) and brings death and rats with him when he comes. The plot is not really the thing in this movie, however. Herzog focuses on visuals and mood, to the extent that the story is really on notable for the changes it makes to the inspiring text. Particularly to the character of Lucy, who is much more of a pro-active force in this version (and supplants the character of Mina from the text), as well as the character of Van Helsing - who, in this version, is a doddering pedant whose slavish devotion to science means Lucy is on her own in dealing with Dracula.

Don't freak out! You're way more capable than any of the men in this film.

And then, of course, there's Dracula himself - played with feral intensity by Klaus Kinski. His Count is both more animalistic and somehow more sympathetic and almost tragic - though it teeters on the edge of being pathetic instead. Certainly his hollow-eyed gaze seems constantly on the edge of tears, except when there is blood to be had. This is probably my favorite role for Kinski, and he manages to pull off being a monster with at least the memory of humanity.

"I really want to see Stranger Things, but we don't get Netflix up here."

The imagery is fantastic, with Harker's trip to Castle Dracula being a standout - looming mountains, cascading streams hemmed in by moss-slicked cliffs and sunsets that come on too quickly and yet also seem to last forever. Early on a gypsy man says that the Castle isn't even real, that it's a ruin and those who go through the gates enter a dreamworld, and this is reinforced by contrasting the fairly intact interiors of the castle with a completely ruined exterior shot. The rats infest every later scene in the film, forming a living, writhing background for the decay of the city. I do still love the nods to Murnau's film, especially the shadow of the count moving in strange ways along the walls. There's also a scene in which Dracula moves through the deserted streets at night, almost skipping. It's really the only time he seems almost happy. It's disturbing.

It's a picnic! Just ignore the coffins and the rats. Oh, and the plague.

Unfortunately for me, the stilted and stylized acting and direction grated this time around. Isabelle Adjani as Lucy is particularly arch. I think she's probably the truest to the original in action and intent, but it's too much - at least in this viewing. Even the music cues seemed ill-timed or chosen poorly. I'd much prefer an actual score that went with the action. The interiors are shot dimly and with a flat lighting that contrasts sharply with the rich exterior shooting and I found myself longing for some depth in those scenes. Scenes in general seem to drag on too long, with too little happening in them to maintain interest. These are things that didn't bother me the first time I watched the film, but seemed to wear on me during this viewing.

Watch the hands, buster! And if you could make this scene like 10 minutes shorter...

The Bottom Line
I hate to undercut myself, but I urge you to attempt to see Nosferatu. It's an art-film horror movie, with a stylized presentation meant to mimic and expand on the German expressionist film it's based on, and at that it succeeds admirably. You may need to brace yourself for a certain lack of pacing and a focus on image over story, but if you're in the right mood it can be magic. I wish I'd been there this time around.

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