Nosferatu (1979)

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Since the entirety of October is officially Halloween this year (shut up, you!), we at Psycho Drive-In have decided to attempt to fill the month with thirty-one recommendations for horror-related movies, comics, books, TV shows, toys, games, and everything in-between. It’s gonna be a grab-bag of goodies we feel you should be exposed to, whether you like it or not! But don’t expect your standard suggestions for Halloween fun, we’re digging into some stuff that we love in the hopes that you might make this October a little bit weirder than usual.

Weirder in a good way. Not like what’s going on outside in the hellscape of 2020.

You might’ve seen F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent masterpiece, Nosferatu, but you have definitely seen the influence the film has brought forth to horror and film alike. When Murnau made it, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was only twenty-five years old. He couldn’t get the rights, so he had to change the basics of the story, but that’s about it. It is, for all intents, the first telling of the Count Dracula story put to film. Nosferatu has some of the most cursed and alluring imagery in all of film and structured our relationship to the material for decades.

So why, as legendary and still effective as the 1922 film is, would Werner Herzog return to the material for his 1979 adaptation? It’s clear to see he has a love of the original. There are few deviations from the basic structure of the film. Yes, it is longer, but the root of the two are the same. I think the impulse was the inherent loneliness within the text. Count Dracula has been encumbered by his immortal coil for centuries. He can’t be in sunlight so his skin has a reptilian white to it that is only heightened by how smooth his features are. His teeth and fingernails have become elements of murder. His castle is virtually empty. Time has turned the man into a spindly creature that kills out of necessity and a feverish compulsion.

The film begins with Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) being summoned deep into the Carpathian Mountains on a journey that will take weeks till he can reach Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) and aid him in selling his castle. Harker fears the journey but feels the need to provide a more luxurious life for his wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani.)

Harker travels alone through an unforgiving landscape that Herzog and his cinematographer Jorg Schmidt-Reitwin capture with his beautiful terror. Herzog’s eye for the terror of nature is on full display. At one point, the camera rests beneath the top of a mountain and it holds as the imposing clouds drift over the peak. The shot lulls the viewer into the hypnotic dread of nature. Herzog is a master of tone and builds a steady sense of dread till Harker is eventually picked up by a carriage and brought to the castle.

There is an unease to these early interactions between Harker and Dracula. Herzog restages the famous moment in the 1922 film where the Harker stand-in cuts his finger and a rabid Dracula, or Count Orlock in the 1922, sucks the blood.

Eventually the real estate plans are signed and the mad dash of Dracula and Harker begins. The two men, Dracula by boat and Harker by arduous carriage or any means necessary because he breaks his leg trying to escape, race to Lucy. Dracula senses an eternal companion and Harker must protect his wife.

When Dracula arrives, Herzog stages an unsettling moment where the ship just drifts into the town and eventually stops. Then the camera turns and we see a ship that is being guided by no one because Dracula has killed everyone, but he makes it look like the rats and plague have finally come to Wismar.

Now is where the real Herzog kicks in. The city becomes ravaged by rats as the plague arrives. Dracula roams the death-ridden streets at night. In one of the film’s most evocative images, a static camera holds on a wide shot of an empty town square then Dracula runs into frame, his face taking up the center as he looks just past the camera. The shot holds as death drips from his eyes then he runs. The shot holds and we see him slowly disappear into the night.

The final twenty minutes of the film are dreaded. Herzog isn’t interested in crafting a horror film with easy scares. He builds a world overrun with death. There is a moment where Lucy sits at her vanity, we see the door open in the mirror but no body. The floor begins to creak. Herzog holds and doesn’t rush the moment, he lets it build till Dracula appears in frame.

As the town descends into madness, there is an image of such absurdity that you might believe Herzog’s impulse to make the film was to capture this one scene. The camera pans to a group of people at a table outside with rats crawling in every inch of the frame. The group wants to celebrate their demise with each other so that they might not die alone.

But, this is above all a Dracula film. The longest and most contemplative death at Count Dracula’s hand comes towards the end. Dracula sensually caresses his victim and Herzog lets the tender and vibrant sexuality of the moment play out. In a life bound to be undead and nearly devoid of pleasures, this moment gives Dracula a moment of fulfilment, or perhaps contentment at least.

The film doesn’t quite reach the heights of the 1922 film. To think it might is a bit of a fool’s errand. Herzog brings a different feeling to the story. Murnau’s original worked as pure terror and Herzog is interested in the depraved and dreadful. Both films work on their own merits.

This type of Dracula is the most compelling to me. Yes, there are excellent tellings of the Count that take the material in different directions, but this version settles into the terror of living an undead life while also focusing on the prey that he must hunt. There are no easy deaths for these characters and it’s coming. Death stops for nothing and no one.

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