Halloween Top 13: The Remake #3: Nosferatu, Phanton der Nacht (1979)

A man is sent to the Carpathian Mountains where he is to meet a client, an investor looking for property. Once there, he realizes something is not quite right with his host. As he further investigates lead him to believe that this Count Dracula must be [Cue Dramatic Music and Lightning Crash] Klaus Kinski? Yep it sure is because when I want to kick back with a classic vampire flick, well, let’s be honest. My first choice is Bela Lugosi, but right after that is today’s creepy gem. Now I know many folks love the Hammer films with Christopher Lee, and personally I prefer Jess Franco’s 1970 Count Dracula with Lee. There is even a few people I know who like Gary Oldman or Frank Langella, and I have a place in my heart for both of those (Keanu’s accent and Langella’s hair withstanding.) Once in a blue moon, I might even throw on F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, but my second choice for a Dracula tale will always be the strange, atmospheric retelling of Murnau’s film, Werner Herzog‘s Nosferatu: Phanton der Nacht or Nosferatu the Vampire (1979).

Let’s get back to the action already in progress, so Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is stuck in the Carpathian Mountains with Count Dracula, and he’s sold him a run down property conveniently adjacent to his own. It doesn’t take long before the Count has loaded up his coffins full of soil, and embarks on the long voyage to his new home. He brings along a few friends with him, rats diseased with the plague. When he arrives in his new home, the German port city of Wismar, death begins to spread immediately, and the Count sets his sights on Harker’s beautiful wife Lucy (Isabella Adjani). Eventually, Harker makes his way home though he no longer remembers his wife. Lucy tries fruitlessly to warn the townsfolk of the Count, but no one, not even Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladenghast), would believe her. With no other choice, Lucy takes matters into her own hands and sacrifices herself to defeat the vampire.

It would be an impossible task to measure Herzog’s film against Murnau’s innovative early horror. They both share a mastery of the visual style of film, tell their stories economically making the most of atmosphere to horrify, and share a singularly strange leading man. (Talk about the impossible, try comparing Kinski and Schreck.) Essentially they are the same film except one of them has the added bonuses of color and sound, but outside of those obvious similarities, the two films could not be more different. Now, I’m not here to talk about Murnau, and I think the vast majority of horror fans have at least some experience with his Nosferatu (if not get thee to Internet Archive pronto) so I’m not too worried about spoiler as the plots are near identical. The real differences come from the cast, and the director who is making each film. If there is one thing that is true about Wener Herzog, it is that he is a man of singular vision.

This was the second of five collaborations between Herzog and leading man Klaus Kinski, and this is a perfect example of why their partnership worked (on screen at least). In Herzog’s film, the vampire is not merely the source of plague, death and evil (Though the film certainly exploit’s the literal translation of Nosferatu, “plague carrier”). This Count Dracula is a tragic figure who you can genuinely have pathos for even as he’s destroying a whole town with his very presence. I really think it is Kinski’s performance and his sad, sad looking eyes that make the character and really gives a different tone to the film. Herzog also exploited the fact that in the end Mernau’s film deviated from the book casting Harker’s wife as the heroine of the tale. Isabella Adjani is both a stunning woman and gives an incredible performance in her role. There are a number of other smaller performances I quite enjoy especially Roland Topor as Renfield. (You can read more about my thoughts on Topor and all the Renfield’s here.) I should have probably said, but there were two versions of the film made simultaneously in German and English, and while both are very good, for this review I watched the German version.

One of the themes that I have never seen explored in Herzog’s Nosferatu is the battle between science and superstition. The townsfolk won’t hear of a menace like a vampire in their city and so forth. This theme comes up repeatedly in the film, and it often strikes me that Herzog may not have just been talking about the death of folklore. By the late ‘70’s Star Wars had already hit, and movies would never be the same again. Herzog, a man who loves the artistry of film deeply, didn’t rush headlong into the future, but instead reached for the past. He saw that science had changed filmmaking, and that at once it was a scary thing and not. After all, when Murnau made his film, it was science and art changing the way we perceive the world too. So along with his story there is a message, accept change and remember the past... or it could kill you.  Is that not exactly what as moviegoers we want when a film we hold dear is remade?

So there we have it Number 3 on my list, and I really can’t wait to get into the last two picks on the countdown. I’m sure plenty of you have figured out what they’re going to be, but I won’t spoil the surprise. Instead, I’ll just say that I’m please as hell to have to check out these movies again. Hey, in case you missed it, don’t forget to go back and check out Matt from Chuck Norris Ate My Baby as he counts down his 13 favorite remakes, and look out tomorrow around noon for the last Halloween Overachievers list, this time from my good friend Emily. Until then I’m going to sign off, and have a glass of wine. Who am I kidding? I never drink….awww, you know the rest!

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1 comment:

  1. One of the few examples of a truly great movie being remade, and the remake being every bit as good as the original.


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