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Review: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Premise: A remake of the 1922 film and inspired by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) travels from Transylvania to Germany and preys upon the living.

What Works: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is one of the great films of the silent era and the most influential vampire movie ever made. The 1922 picture was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and it established the visual style of the vampire genre; most subsequent adaptations of Stoker’s book draw upon it in some way. In 1979, filmmaker Werner Herzog directed a remake of Nosferatu. While it wasn’t as influential as its predecessor, Herzog’s version remains a unique movie that reflects upon vampire mythology and takes a philosophical approach to it. Herzog makes both feature films and documentaries and movies like Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man ponder humanity’s place in the universe and the smallness and finiteness of our existence. In Nosferatu, Herzog found a way to explore those familiar themes. This version of Count Dracula is an immortal who is destined to dwell in the darkness and live an isolated existence. Where a lot of vampires are full of a violent lust for life, Nosferatu’s Dracula trudges on with his existence, plagued by an existential emptiness. Everything in the film is geared toward that idea and 1979’s Nosferatu is a different kind of horror picture. Slasher movies exploit immediate threats to our bodies, possession films are about threats to our identity, and zombie pictures are about the fear of the crowd. Nosferatu is the rare kind of horror film that exploits cerebral and philosophical terror; it is a movie in which the ultimate threat is not vampirism but the exhaustion of a lonely and joyless life. The intellectual aspects of Herzog’s Nosferatu go hand-in-hand with its success as a horror film. The movie delivers as a work of gothic horror. The early sequences of Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) traveling to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania are especially stylish and the movie uses light and shadow very well. The score by Popol Vuh is also quite effective with a mix of melodic music and ambient sound. As in every version of Dracula, the movie hinges upon the casting of the Count and Nosferatu has one of the most interesting vampires in Klaus Kinski’s performance. His Dracula is sad but not pathetic. He’s a lonely predator who sees what the living have—love but also death—and wants to take it from them. His lust makes him monstrous and so Kinski’s Dracula has depth and even tragic qualities without slipping into the melodrama of young adult vampire fiction. This is why 1979’s Nosferatu is not only a great film but also a great remake. The filmmakers respect the original subject matter while also making a distinct and unique movie that stands on its own.

What Doesn’t: 1979’s Nosferatu cuts against some of the expectations that contemporary viewers have of vampire movies. In today’s films, vampires are typically portrayed as handsome and suave. The Count Dracula of Nosferatu is grotesque. Potentially more alienating to mainstream viewers are the existential qualities of 1979’s Nosferatu. This movie is more thoughtful than the average bloodsucker outing and it’s also slower and more contemplative. Those qualities are not faults of this movie but they are likely to frustrate viewers accustomed to Underworld or Twilight. The greatest flaw of Nosferatu is the same as most adaptations of Dracula: the human characters are not that interesting and there isn’t much for them to do. There are two versions of Nosferatu: an English language version and a German version. Rather than dubbing the actors in one language or the other, filmmaker Werner Herzog hired bilingual actors and shot each scene in both languages. Some of the actors struggle to deliver their lines naturally in English.

DVD extras: German and English versions, featurette, trailers, image galleries, and commentary tracks.

Bottom Line: Nosferatu is a bold remake of the classic silent film. It may not be to everyone’s taste and it’s probably too cerebral for the Underworld crowd but Nosferatu is scary and thoughtful and a unique take on the vampire film.

Episode: #671 (October 29, 2017)