I 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.
The 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.
As 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.
The 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.