T: Targets (1968)

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MPW-56708Every now and then the pieces just come together, and it is wonderful when that happens.

After shooting The Terror, one of Roger Corman’s more infamous patchwork movies, Boris Karloff owed Corman two more days of work. There was a young feller named Peter Bogdanovich, a writer who had come to California and started working with Corman by accident more than anything. After almost half a year toiling in that fruitful movie factory/film school, Corman felt that Bogdanovich had earned his shot, and offered him his own film. It could be any movie Bogdanovich wanted, with two conditions:

1) He had to use Boris Karloff for the remaining two days on his contract, and

2) He had to use 20 minutes of footage from The Terror.

targets-1968Employing Corman math, this meant 20 minutes of new Karloff (“You can shoot 20 minutes in two days, right? I shot whole movies in two days!”) plus 20 minutes of old footage added up to enough Karloff to ballyhoo it as a new Karloff movie. All Bogdanovich had to do was figure out how.

What began as a joke in his head while desperately trying to put those puzzle pieces together – Karloff watching the end of The Terror  in a screening room, turning to Roger Corman and saying, “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” – eventually became the movie we know as Targets.

The movie does begin with the end of The Terror and the screening room. Karloff is playing Byron Orlock, star of The Terror (and so much more), who has decided this is the perfect time to retire. Entreaties from producers and the young director of The Terror (Bogdanovich himself, playing a character based on uncredited script doctor Samuel Fuller) prove useless. Orlock feels he is an anachronism, his stock in trade fallen to mere camp against headlines of shooting rampages in supermarkets.

vlcsnap-00011What Orlock does not know, as he stands on a sidewalk arguing with the director, is that he is literally in the crosshairs of a hunting rifle across the street.

The rifle is being bought at a gun store by Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelley), who gladly purchases the rifle, then puts it into the trunk of his Mustang, where it joins a small arsenal of rifles and pistols.

And so begins the two stories that will alternate throughout the movie, as Bobby exists in his gray suburban tract house with his parents and wife. Bobby’s dad has a lot of guns and a few hunting trophies; we see a picture of Bobby in Army fatigues on the wall. Bobby tries to talk to his wife before she leaves for work, saying he doesn’t know what’s happening to him, he’s having some funny ideas. She’s late, though, and laughs it off.

600px-Targetswoodmaster4Byron, after a sullen night interrupted by a drunken Bogdanovich that ends with both of them waking up with enormous hangovers, decides to do one last personal appearance at a drive-in theater premiering The Terror. In our other story, Bobby waits for his wife to wake up, then shoots her, his mother, and a hapless delivery boy. They will just be the start.

Based on the case of Charles Whitman, Bobby climbs to the top of an oil storage tank and snipes at the cars passing on the highway below. He seems a bit surprised that the police come so quickly, and eventually dodges into a drive-in movie to escape them – as luck would have it, the drive-in where Orlock will be appearing. He manages to climb into the screen and views the killing fields below, rows of unsuspecting cars, He waits only for night, and unwary persons to turn on their interior lights to give him his targets.

It must have been kind of intense seeing this movie at a drive-in, is what I’m saying.

targets_1In a nicely meta bit, Bogdanovich keeps begging Orlock to do his next movie, written especially for him, and that script is obviously Targets (finally the drunken Bogdanovich snatches the script and staggers toward the door, saying. “Fine! I’ll offer it to Vincent Price!”).

Karloff is 80 years old here, still intensely vital and utterly professional. At this point in his life, both legs were in braces, and he was usually in a wheelchair; when we see him walk, it is always with a cane. Emphysema had him down to half a lung, and on constant oxygen support. Tales of his last years had him taking off the oxygen mask, rising from his wheelchair, hitting the damned mark and saying his damned lines, and returning to the chair and his life-giving tank only after “Cut” was called, and never complaining. That is what the word “professional” has always meant to me. Karloff had none of the bitterness or disdain for his work that Orlock has; but other than that, he was pretty much playing himself in this role. Legend has it that Karloff liked the script so much, he gave the tyro director three extra days of shooting for free.

Not all actors are lucky enough to have that one movie that acts as a perfect coda to their career. John Wayne managed it with The Shootist, and Karloff did it with Targets. But Karloff being Karloff, this was not his last movie; that would fall to Curse of the Crimson Altar and a group of low-budget Mexican movies. But I can alter my perception of the world as I see fit, and so Targets, possibly the first and best of the modern horror movies to successfully deal with a uniquely modern monster, remains for me the capper of Karloff’s long and storied career.

This trailer is obviously from after the movie’s troubled first release, and the success of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, in 1971, and minimizing Karloff’s involvement is awfully telling. 1968 was a particularly violent year for America, and Paramount was, perhaps understandably, timorous about the movie’s subject matter. But I wonder what those quaking studio heads would have thought of the present day, when mass shootings have become so common they don’t even register on the nightly news anymore.

Targets on Amazon

S: Shanks (1974)

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shanksShanks is an odd, odd movie.

This is the first – and I’m thinking only – starring film role for the famous French mime Marcel Marceau. It seems quaint these days to consider a mime a respected artist, but I had the pleasure of seeing Marceau on one of his American tours, and I can tell you, the reputation was completely justified and wholly earned. Marceau plays the title character, Malcolm Shanks, a deaf-mute puppeteer much beloved in his small town. Marceau also plays Mr. Walker, an elderly, eccentric scientist who owns the gothic mansion up on the hill.

Walker, impressed by Shanks’ skill with marionettes, hires him to help with his experiments, much to the delight of Shanks’ worthless sister and husband, the town drunk (Tsilla Chelton and Philippe Clay, respectively), who seize Malcolm’s pay each week.

download (1)Walker is working on… something. He begins with Shanks manipulating a pickled toad to jump, using electrodes. They progress to a dead rooster, using some manner of wireless devices stuck in the nervous system. They’ve just started to map out where the electrodes go in a human’s nervous system, when the aged Walker dies.

His home life having become unlivable, Shanks moves to the mansion and continues his friend’s work, using Walker as the subject. Marceau’s mime talents come to the fore here, as Shanks learns to manipulate Walker’s body like a marionette, the stiffened joints cracking and popping in protest, . This sequence is, as the poster promises, “deliciously grotesque”.

Soon enough, the drunken lout of a brother-in-law shows up to demand money from Walker’s corpse, then manages to kill himself by falling down some stairs when Shanks attacks him with the zombie rooster. Then the sister, seeing the reanimated drunk nearly hit by a car, runs out in the road and gets creamed herself… well, Shanks soon has a bizarre troupe of zombie marionettes.

shanks05The movie is at its strongest in these sequences, full of whimsical, if extremely dark, humor. Celia, a girl on the cusp of womanhood (Cindy Eilbacher, who would eventually wind up in Slumber Party Massacre II), who dearly loves Shanks, is at first horrified, then amused by these dark antics, finally having her birthday party with Shanks in the gothic mansion, attended by zombie servants.

Which is when the motorcycle gang barges in.

To say that Shanks is uneven in tone is about the biggest truth and the strongest criticism you can unload on it; as the story had progressed, silent movie-style intertitles have popped up occasionally, and for the motorcycle gang it reads, “The Outside World of Evil”. Shanks is overpowered, Celia is raped and killed (offscreen, this is a PG movie), and Walker will dig himself out of the grave to wreak revenge on the thugs.

With our required zombie murders – and Shanks’ final hand-to-hand with Celia’s killer – out of the way, the movie finally returns to its morbidly fascinating tone, with Shanks sadly revivifying Celia’s corpse and having a final dance with her. And then we cut back to Shanks’ puppet show for the town children, Celia looking on with admiration, as this was all apparently happening in Shanks’ mind, the end.

shanks (1)I had honestly hoped (having wanted to see this since 74, but it vanished after dismal box office) that this was some undiscovered gem, but alas, that withdrawal from the public eye is largely deserved. Marceau is wonderful – it’s a sheer joy just to watch the man walk through the frame – but its uneveness sadly detracts from the good. The concept is unique and interesting, but soon finds itself with nowhere to go. The sudden appearance of the motorcycle gang seems a desperate intervention to make the movie marketable as a horror flick.

This is nowhere more obvious than the it-was-all-just-a-dream ending, which also seems tacked on. Here is the thing, though: this is William Castle’s last film as a director, and Castle always made what I refer to as kid-friendly horror movies. House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, even the twisted The Tingler were all squarely aimed at the Saturday matinée demographic, and even later, afternoon TV and Creature Features. Castle likely felt that the sappier, happy ending wasn’t a bug, it was a feature.

Shanks would have been improved immeasurably if its running time possessed the confidence of its own macabre premise. There are sections of it where you can almost feel a young Tim Burton in the audience, filing away stuff for later use.  As a document of Marceau’s talents away from pantomime make-up, it’s quite valuable. But as a horror movie – or even a coherent whole – it is sadly lacking.

A distinct lack of trailers on the Olive Films blu-ray and the Internet. Here’s a clip, though, that gives you some idea of the beautiful quality of the blu, and a sample of the macabre whimsy we could have used more of:

Shanks on Amazon

R: Return of the Blind Dead (1973)

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returnoftheblinddead

What, we’re back to Spanish horror already?

This is, to no one’s surprise, Amando de Ossorio’s sequel to his 1972 Tombs of the Blind Dead, which is a really good horror movie. It introduced an alternate version of the Knights Templar (whose actual story makes for a good read) who were executed for practicing black magic and birds plucked out their corpses’ eyes. In this alternate alternate version, the Templars are still drinking virgin blood, but this time it’s the villagers, not the Church (with a capital “Ch”) who get fed up, burn out the knights’ eyes and then set them (or at least some dummies dressed like them) on fire. The one Templar allowed to have lines swears they’ll be back.

blind_dead_coll01Sooo, 500 years later, the very same village is having a party to celebrate the legend of the death of the Templars, and an “American” named Jack Marlowe (Tony Kendall) is there to provide the fireworks. He got the gig through an old girlfriend (Esperanza Ray) who is now the secretary/mistress of the corrupt mayor (Fernando Sancho).  The relationships get stupidly complex, but never mind that, there’s zombies.

The semi-deformed caretaker of the ruins where the Templars got torched, Murdo (Jose Canelejas) kidnaps a girl and sacrifices her the night of the festival, but we’re not really sure if it’s her blood or the Templars deciding they’d better make good on that “coming back” business. In any case, the Templars are back, and they’re a creepy bunch, because they actually look dead. They get on their zombie horses and ride for the village, stopping at the occasional house or railroad station to murder the occupants.

82Intriguingly, the Mayor and his goons have advance warning of the Templar’s approach, yet do nothing about it, resulting in a wholesale slaughter in the town square. After Marlowe and the Mayor’s suddenly civic-minded goons manage to clear a way for the surviving townfolk to run away, they barricade themselves in a church to hopefully survive the night. At that point, we’re into fairly traditional zombie siege territory, with the occupants splitting into factions and the Mayor getting several people killed just so he can escape.

There are two minor scenes of the Mayor calling the less-than-useful Governor for help which I think are supposed to be comedic but just slow everything down. Apparently the legend of the Templars is very well-known, because Useful information About Undead Knights is dropped at important points. “They’re supposed to be attracted to sound!” “They’re afraid of fire!” “They’re supposed to go back to their graves at dawn!” But in this version of the Templar story, they haven’t been seen for 500 years… where is this information coming from?

return-of-the-evil-dead-ataque-de-los-muertos-sin-ojos-1Tombs of the Blind Dead ended with one hell of a devastating bloodbath and the dreadful promise of carnage to come. Return has a more upbeat ending, which feels like a cheat, somehow. Overall, it’s not quite as good as its predecessor, but it definitely has its moments, and whatever else, you have to admire its efficiency: the Templars rise from their graves at the 16 minute mark, and then we’re off to the races. That, my friends, is some significant bang for your horror buck.

The Blind Dead on Amazon

Q: The Queen of Black Magic (1983)

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queenofblackmagic02

Well, well, Indonesian horror, here we are again.

Back on the other end of the alphabet we visited Dangerous Seductress, a 1995 effort to break into the lucrative Western horror market. We’re going back a decade and more for a more homegrown horror, starring Indonesia’s answer to Barbara Steele, the lovely Suzzanna, who was a genuine star in her country from the early 70s up through the 90s.

The movie starts with a wedding, the village head man’s daughter marrying a man named Mohar, with much ceremony. Judging by the muttering in the crowd, Mohar is not a very well-regarded fellow. Somebody else agrees with that opinion, because there are signs of black magic afoot: maggots in the wedding feast, and the bride starts hallucinating monsters.

Suzzanna

Suzzanna

A “witch doctor” (hey, blame the dub, not me) is called in, and whoever the villain is bounces the guy up and down like a superball. He lives long enough to reveal “The demon comes from the West!” and Mohar, being a scumbag, deduces that it must be Murni (Suzzanna), the girl he seduced and then left for his current sugar momma.

Mohar whips the village into a mob (even when the head man appeals to their reason) and they descend upon the innocent Murni, burn her house, and throw her into a ravine, which is apparently how you deal with witches in Indonesia. Fortunately for her, she is caught by an old man, who nurses her back to health, then tells her that she needs to learn black magic to get her revenge on the villagers.

Now reasonable people would be asking who this old man might be, who conveniently knows so much about black magic, but as we will see, we are dealing with A Village Full of Idiots (my suggested alternate title), so Suzzanna agrees, and begins her training, which involves nude trampoline jumping, for some reason (I shouldn’t complain, it’s a truly lovely shot)

vlcsnap-2014-09-09-19h42m00s23Soon, Murni is appearing to her would-be assassins, and assassining them right back in a number of interesting ways, including flesh-eating bees and animated scarves that double as nooses. During these days, a city feller wanders through the town, and stops at the village mosque to pray, only to find it abandoned and falling apart. In fact, whenever he mentions prayer, a part of the building tries to fall on him, because our old pal, the Suspicious Old Man, is muttering over his paraphernalia. The holy man defiantly sets up his prayer mat in the mosque and prays despite the falling debris, resulting in the Old Man getting punched by a holy mule miles away.

vlcsnap-2014-09-09-19h43m46s65The new Holy Guy observes what has become a normal night for the village: Mohar and his minions marching out into the night to find Murni (like I said, Village Full of Idiots), and opines that really, all the village needs to do is start praying again. Well, the mob of idiots does find Murni, and she disperses them easily with a big offscreen fan, and lays a curse on Mohar, who, in the best scene in the movie, literally pulls his own head off.

It turns out that I had been waiting all my life to see that in a movie.

vlcsnap-2014-09-09-19h44m55s254After Mohar’s head goes all penanggalan on us, flying around and biting people, the Holy Man crops up to stop it. and everybody agrees it would be a good idea to rebuild the mosque and start praying again. Murni is reluctant to continue killing, now that she’s had her revenge on Mohar, much to the Old Man’s disgust. It gets worse when there’s a meet cute between the Holy Man and Murni, and she decides to move to the big city and marry him. Which the Old Man just can’t have.

Queen of Black Magic isn’t going to win any points for originality, but it has some impressively weird and gory death scenes, and I have to say, after years and years of Western horror movies where the villains sneer at ineffectual religion, it’s quite novel to see a movie where simple prayer actually packs a (literal) punch. Entertaining and worth the watch, If you can get past constantly groaning, “You idiots!

vlcsnap-2014-09-09-19h45m37s124I’m feeling nice tonight. Here, have a Best Of:

The Queen of Black Magic on Amazon

P: The People Who Own the Dark (1976/80)

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Incidentally, Sean S. Cunningham claims he knows nothing about this movie,

Incidentally, Sean S. Cunningham claims he knows nothing about this movie,

Whenever I bring up the subject of The People Who Own the Dark (which is an uncommon occurrence, I grant you), I am generally greeted by blank looks. Admittedly, this shouldn’t surprise me, though I am narcissistic enough to believe that my movie experience is everyone else’s. But my knowledge of this movie is due only to a couple of 15 second movie spots on local TV, and a later admonition to “not bother.” The lack of it in any home entertainment format seemed to bear that out, but as we know, often to my detriment, I have to find out for myself.

Code Red DVD is one of those boutique labels that champions some of the most obscure titles, and God bless them for it. They’ve allowed me to see some absolute garbage, but they’ve also allowed me to see some real gems. And their disc of People Who Own the Dark (with typical dark humor, proclaimed on the box to be a “Brand new telecine from an abused, scratched and beat-up 35mm print that went vinegar!”) manages to edge it’s way into the latter category. (The transfer, incidentally, is all those things, but it is also frequently gorgeous; the disc also has a full-frame 1-inch video transfer, if you need to know what’s missing from that 35mm print)

In an indeterminate area of Europe (oh, okay, it’s Spain) a group of high level statesmen, businessmen and rich doctors gather at a remote villa for what proves to be a weekend of debauchery with some lovely women who are, ahem, in it for the money. There is an opening ceremony name-checking the Marquis de Sade, held in an underground wine cellar, and just when we think we’re going to be treated to a low-budget Salo (hopefully lighter on the coprophagy), there is an earthquake that interrupts the salaciousness.

people-dark-32Returning to the mansion upstairs, our group finds out that every living thing above ground is now totally blind. The guy who is going to turn out to be our protagonist, Fulton (Alberto de Mendoza) figures out that there has been a nuclear war, and they have just days before the radiation comes. This is bad science at its baddest, but let’s just roll with it.

The men head into town to steal get supplies for their wine cellar/fall out shelter and the boytoy host of the debaucheries (Tomas Pico) first stabs the blind shopkeeper they’re ripping off, then freaks out and shoots some of the now-blind villagers before he is himself killed by one of the outraged doctors. The others return to the villa, and prepare to hunker down until the fallout passes. Their efforts are interrupted by a mob of vengeful blind people.

tumblr_ltsiu1js241qaun7do1_500What this is, obviously, is another version of Night of the Living Dead, except with blind people instead of zombies. The advantage to that is we are able to skip right over the “they’re learning to use tools!” phase right into cars being used as battering rams to get into the villa. The major disadvantage is the rather problematic conversion of blind people into bloodthirsty monsters.

But as a zombie siege picture, it works; all the necessary notes are hit, and hit well. Though what can be considered another flaw is the adherence to the Night of the Living Dead model, right up to the downbeat ending.

the-people-who-own-the-dark-1975The double year credit in the title of this post is due to the fact that (Surprise! Surprise!) this is actually a Spanish movie, Ultimo deseo. That would likely come as no surprise if I had told you the designated asshole (who is so mean that when he shoots skeet, he uses real pigeons) is Paul Naschy, and the mistress of the villa is the lovely Maria Perschy. Also, the director is Leon Klimovsky, who you’ll recognize from a ton of Naschy werewolf movies.

The original cut is 12 minutes longer than the English version; I suspect I’ll never know what’s in those 12 minutes, and given what I’ve seen, it probably doesn’t much matter. There are some character stories that aren’t fully exploited in this version, but there’s not a whole lot here to make me want to seek those moments out. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, but neither is it a great movie. It’s entertaining enough during its runtime, but alas! Does not cry out for a second viewing.

The People Who Own the Dark on Amazon

O: Orgy of the Dead (1965)

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Orgy_of_dead_poster_01In any of these movie marathons, too much of a good thing can get poisonous. Eventually you just have to watch something you know is terrible, just so you can have a larf and reflect how good you have it at other times.

No one had let Ed Wood Jr. near a director’s chair since The Sinister Urge in 1960. I still haven’t seen that, I now realize, but I have seen Night of the Ghouls, which languished at the lab for years because Eddie couldn’t afford the fees, and the sad truth is, the man had learned enough by that time that Night has few of the lunatic  newbie mistakes that riddle his earlier pics, so much so that Wood had, at that time, progressed from manic risibility to mere mediocrity. Surely there is a German word that describes the sadness that causes me.

Night of the Ghouls does have some of the flavorful Ed Wood dialogue, though, and since Orgy of the Dead is an Ed Wood script from an Ed Wood novel, it proudly possesses some, as well.  Producer Stephen Apostolof, making his directorial debut, was a little too smart to let Eddie near the big chair, but he did employ him as a production assistant. Too bad those smarts didn’t extend to the casting, because there are few things worse than bad actors trying to do Ed Wood dialogue. Then, God bless ‘em, that is why I am here.

PDVD_354Orgy of the Dead is a nudie-cutie, a subgenre more or less created by Russ Meyer. Most of them are simply loose frameworks to connect burlesque striptease numbers (see also Kiss Me Quick, one of the more watchable examples of the breed, if only for its oddness). This means I am going to have problems finding photos to illustrate this review that do not violate WordPress community standards. (I can still talk about body parts, because nobody reads anymore)

Your norms (and chief bad actors) here are Bob and Shirley (William Bates and Pat Barrington). Bob is a successful horror writer who is looking for an old abandoned graveyard at midnight for inspiration, and dragged his girlfriend along just because. One car wreck later (the squealing brake sounds start a couple of cuts before the actual incident) they regain consciousness and find themselves unwilling spectators to the court of the Emperor of the Night (Criswell), who is judging the dead, or at least the dead who are female and have a propensity for losing their clothing. While dancing.

1032759261_919ff689a4 copyThere are roughly ten dances on the card tonight, with the slightest of story elements to justify them. The sudden lack of clothing never is explained, but I guess we can credit Apostolof for using the near endless cutaways to Criswell and his attendant (Fawn Silver, as either the Black Ghoul, Princess of the Night, or Ghoulita, depending on whether you believe the IMDb, the script, or the video box) to excise the strip part of the striptease, and just go to the near-nudity.

There is an Indian dance, then a quote-unquote “Skeleton Dance”, during which our, ahem, heroes, from their hiding place, say things like “I can’t imagine anything dead is playing that music” and “Nothing alive looks like that,” because Bob is an idiot.

After a Goldfinger-inspired dance where a woman who “loved gold above all else” gets dipped in gold (her picture is under the credits and much of the publicity material), Bob and Shirley get captured by the Emperor’s goons, a not half-bad werewolf and a really terrible mummy. (And yes, the boredom has set in to such a point that I did not realize that Shirley was also the dancer for the Gold Girl number).

OrgyoftheDeadTied to two conveniently-placed obelisks (while Shirley yells, “Fiends! Fiends!”), Bob and Shirley are forced to watch the rest of the evening’s festivities, and I know how they feel.

First Ghoulita informs us “To love the cat is to be the cat.” Now, I have loved and lived with several cat lovers, and the uniform never included assless leopard-print pajamas with a boob window. I feel so deprived. And we are going to ignore Criswell’s “A pussycat is born to be whipped.”

bob and shirleyI shudder to inform you that we are now only four dances into our set. There is a “slave dance” (featuring my favorite Criswell line, “Torture! Torture! It pleasures me!”) which is followed by Bob telling Shirley, who is just standing there, “Panic won’t do us any good!” Then we have a Mexican dance, then a Hawaiian dance (which honestly seems to last an hour), then a comedy sketch with the mummy and wolfman which is every bit as painful as you think it is, and then there is a bride “who murdered her groom on her wedding day, and now she dances with his skeleton.” (“We rented this skeleton prop for the day, and dammit, we’re going to use it!”) Or at least she does until the go-go music starts, and then she starts gyrating her upper torso so her breasts flail about in all directions. This was the same act as the blonde Sex Bomb in Kiss Me Quick, and just looks uncomfortable, if not downright painful. Still, I suppose this is a fetish for someone out there…

Scream, Gingerla, Scream!

Scream, Gingerla, Scream!

Shirley gets to show us she has the worst movie scream ever, and we still have to get through the zombie dance and the streetwalker dance and…

No, I’m not going to tell you how it ends. Suffer as I did.

Orgy is competently shot, if not acted. Some of the ladies have pretty good dance moves, some do not. They’re all attractive, but seem to fall within the same body type. Your main enemy while watching Orgy of the Dead is going to be boredom, pure and simple, unless you are vitally interested in burlesque and third-rate Martin Denny imitations. This has to be the fifth or sixth time I have watched it, and unfortunately, Orgy of the Dead does not improve with age – but my facility with the fast forward button certainly did.

Oh, the hell with community standards, have a NSFW trailer:

Orgy of the Dead on Amazon

N: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

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Nosferatu_Phantom_der_NachtI have watched a lot of horror movies in my life, and I really have no idea how many times I’ve seen the story of Dracula play out. In the course of my time on this Earth, I have seen the Count go from Evil Incarnate to Tragic Romantic Hero (a metamorphosis of which I do not approve).  I suppose the ultimate capper was when I finally got to play my dream role, Van Helsing, in a theatrical version that was pretty close to the novel, meaning I actually lived the story for a few months.  Good as the story is – and there are portions of Bram Stoker’s novel that deserve their high place in the annals of horror fiction – man I am tired of this story.

So, I have managed successfully to avoid Dario Argento’s Dracula, although I admit I have never seen the Count turn into a giant praying mantis, but I’m afraid that even that novelty isn’t enough to make me sit through that series of events again. But I am more than willing to make an exception for Werner Herzog’s remake of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

7723_5The first reason is the storyline of Nosferatu is different enough to seem fresh (not fresh enough for Stoker’s widow Florence, who very nearly succeeded in making Murnau’s version a lost film). Removed from the possibility of litigious widows, Herzog returns the character’s original names, though for some reason possibly only known to himself, he flips the characters of Lucy and Mina. He also combines the characters of Van Helsing and Dr. Seward, but combining characters is par for the course in versions of Dracula.

The other reason, of course is this is Werner freakin’ Herzog. This is the director who made a movie about dragging a steamship over a mountain by dragging a steamship over a mountain. No sets for this man, if Castle Dracula must be a ruined castle atop an inaccessible mountain, he hauls his cast and crew to a ruined castle atop an inaccessible mountain. When the ghost ship Demeter drifts to port, bringing the vampire and his numerous coffins, that is a real damn ship scraping the walls of the canals of Drelft in the Netherlands. Herzog makes no bones about his intentions as the opening credits play out over footage of actual mummified corpses in Guanajuato, Mexico.

nosferatu ratsAs Herzog’s version of the story progresses, it gets farther and farther from Murnau’s, as Herzog is not going to be satisfied with Gus Van Sant-ing what he considers to be one of the most important movies in German cinema. The most telling embellishment brings to the fore the metaphor of vampire as disease; a lot of treatises and think pieces have been written about vampires representing syphilis or AIDS, and Herzog runs with it. The arrival of the ghost ship also brings an army of rats, and the Plague with a capital P descends on the town. Again, Herzog doesn’t rely on camera angles and trickery to turn a couple of hundred rats into an army, we are talking thousands of the suckers, white rats bought from a scientific research supply and dyed gray for their moment in the limelight.

nosferatu-1979-061The cast is an amazing lot, too: Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker, the lovely Isabelle Adjani – looking as if she has just stepped off the silent screen – as Lucy, and, of course, Klaus Kinski as Dracula. Kinski and Herzog’s fractious, often violent relationship yielded some of the most amazing cinema of the 20th century, and Kinski’s Count is so layered, he is almost impenetrable. He would never be mistaken for a romantic hero, but he is unmistakably tragic, sometimes conflicted, but above all, very, very frightening and otherworldly.

Possibly the most satisfying parts of this movie are the times Herzog, ever the intelligent filmmaker, has the reverence to simply restage shots from the original, and they remain just as powerful in this present day as they did nearly a century ago, reminding us why both films are considered masterpieces.

Nosferatu on Amazon

 

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