‘Hell Yeah!’ is an ongoing series in which horror filmmakers, critics and fans share their take on movies they love. This month: vampires!
I know I might seem a little off-base harboring deep love for the 1979 remake of Nosferatu, considering F.W. Murnau's silent 1922 original is basically the first feature film about vampires ever committed to celluloid, and unofficially (or illegally, to be fair) the first-ever screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's iconic novel Dracula. In the minds of most vamp fans, Murnau's film is a landmark in motion picture history... so why pass it over for a later interpretation by another German auteur, the eccentric Werner Herzog – whose main claim to infamy was hauling a full-size riverboat up a mountain? I'd be delighted to explain why... so click through, read on and prepare to be enlightened!
Although I'll get into the details shortly, I can totally justify my lasting affection for this flick in two magical, mystifying and terrifying words: KLAUS KINSKI. The maddest, most flamboyant, perverse and egocentric actor ever to walk the earth, Klaus was less a man than a hurricane in vaguely human form. Shorn of his trademark silver-blond locks, the great Kinski managed to do the impossible for this project: turn this bald, emaciated, rat-fanged, claw-fingered image of Count Dracula into a sad, sympathetic character tormented every waking moment by his immortal curse ("Time is an abyss," he muses, "as deep as a thousand nights").
As anyone familiar with Herzog and Kinski's legendary working relationship already knows (and if you don't, I encourage you to watch the amazing documentary Kinski: My Best Fiend), the actor's over-the-top acting tendencies – though always fun to watch – were muted after long shouting matches with the director, resulting in a subdued, moody and tortured performance as a creature who has walked alone through the centuries. It ranks among the late actor's finest work, and shows how – despite countless violent confrontations – no one brought out his brilliant potential better than Herzog.
As important as Kinski's interpretation may be, it's Herzog's mastery of the medium that really puts this one at the top of my favorites list. The first time I watched it, I was stunned to realize how little onscreen action takes place. Whole scenes, even single shots, stretch endlessly, forcing me to absorb every detail... but weirdly enough, I didn't even notice time pass at all. The hypnotic effect of a Herzog film is usually no accident (he actually had his entire cast perform under a hypnotic trance in his film Heart of Glass). The feeling is magnified by a phenomenal score by longtime musical collaborator Florian Fricke, who recorded under the name Popol Vuh. Fricke's score – a mixture of ghostly chants, period instruments like dulcimer, and droning sitar – plays a huge role in creating a surreal but strangely comforting dream. The score is further enhanced by classical pieces from Wagner and Gounod, all used to great effect.
As scenes play out slowly and deliberately, you get a sense of sensory free-fall... and despite the feeling of doom that seems to hang over every frame, there's an amazing warmth to it. It's hard to describe in words the scene in which the residents of a plague-infested Wismar hold a final celebration in the town square, knowing that death is just around the corner. The festive band music from this scene is removed, replaced by a heartbreaking vocal lament as our heroine Lucy (played by luminous, fragile Isabelle Adjani) wanders fearfully through their midst. To me, it's one of the most haunting moments in film history.
Frankly, it just wouldn't be possible for a film like this to be released today: for starters, there's nary a drop of blood (admittedly odd for a vampire flick), there are absolutely no rapid-fire edits (some shots are even held for several minutes without dialog), the performances are surreal and operatic... maybe even a little stilted. If you think it's essential for a horror movie to beat a viewer into submission, then you're in for one hell of a disappointment. But I've found most horror fans have no problem with a slower pace and minimal action, as long as they are pulled into that dreamlike sense of utter doom... see Stanley Kubrick's take on The Shining for another brilliant example. But while just as beautiful to look at, there's a strangely peaceful, inviting feeling in Herzog's film that makes it unique and special for me.