Nosferatu the Vampyre
(Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht) (1979)
Directed by Werner Herzog

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), a real estate agent, is sent from his home in Wismar to Transylvania, where he is to finalize arrangements his employer, Renfield (Roland Topor), made to sell a house in the Baltic city to the reclusive Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski). Having arrived at the count's isolated castle, Jonathan realizes that his life may be threatened by his unearthly host, who has developed an interest in his guest's young wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani).

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre is perhaps the best adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula yet to have been filmed. The movie is, at once, lovely, captivating, and genuinely eery.

Rather than looking to the original novel, however, the director has largely taken his inspiration from F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. Not only do the details of Herzog's narrative follow those of that earlier film, but even the appearance of the story's villain is clearly derived from that given him in Murnau's work. Dracula is thus a tall, stiff, cadaverously pale being with a bald pate, pointed ears, rattish incisors, and long, spidery fingers tipped with talon-like nails.

Although inspired by Murnau's film, Nosferatu is more than a mere pastiche. It is, in fact, one of the most intriguing horror movies I have encountered. Even though it is dominated by feelings of fear, the director never relies on tacky thrills or uninspired gore to create such an awareness. Instead, he arouses an unnerving sense of the presence of some terrible, lethal supernatural power with skilled pacing, subtle performances, and well crafted images.

The scenes set in Wismar after the vampire's arrival in that city with an army of plague infested rats are especially nicely done. The moviegoer is shown how the monster brings with him sickness and death with depictions either of long queues of men walking through a square bearing innumerable coffins or else of men and women who have been infected and are waiting to die dancing or dining in the streets while rats crawl around their feet. The grim effect the director achieves truly is bewitching.

What is more, Nosferatu is invariably beautifully filmed. Whether the director is revealing forested mountains veiled by dense fogs, the silhouette of a ruinous castle perched upon a rocky crag, or countless rats swarming through a city street, he is able to stir up precisely the right emotion for each part of his movie. The viewer, consequently, experiences a sense of foreboding as Jonathan approaches Dracula's castle, a feeling of terrible, stifling danger as the man is confined in that place with the vampire, and an awareness of catastrophic despair as the people of Wismar succumb to the plague the fiend has brought with him.

Finally, I should note that the cast members consistently acquit themselves well. Bruno Ganz is likeable and engaging. Isabelle Adjani has a ghostly beauty and a haunting presence, and Roland Topor is a joy as the cackling, crazed Renfield. Klaus Kinski, however, really deserves particular credit for his work. While he does not bring to the role of Dracula the sense of unnerving, otherworldly evil Max Schreck does in Murnau's film, his performance, taken as a whole, is just as mesmerizing and far more subtle than is that of the other actor. He reveals a fiend who, though cruel and driven by his anthropophagous lust, is, at the same time, wearied by his dreary existence, which consists merely of an endless, monotonous succession of isolated nights.

Nosferatu is a compelling, enthralling, and skillfully realized work. While it falls short of greatness, it is still always entertaining.

Review by Keith Allen

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