Monday, June 15, 2015

Before I Die #546: Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night (1979)

This great poster from the original U.S. release in
1979 has a great caption at the top. It suggests many
of the singular themes of the movie.
Original German Title: Nosferatu: Fantom der Nacht

Director: Werner Herzog

Scary, but not in a traditional horror movie sense. It is, despite being a remake, a visionary movie, however you look at it.

In 1979, maverick German director Werner Herzog decided to make a modified version of the 1922 horror masterpiece Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror by F.W. Murnau, a director whom Herzog greatly admires. The resulting film, though certainly faithful in many basic ways, bears many of the very best hallmarks of Herzog's finest movies.

It's worth looking at the two primary background sources for Herzog's version.

The novel Dracula by Bram Stoker was a tremendous hit upon its publication in 1897. Even if you have never read the book, you may know the original tale from Francis Ford Coppola's commendable film adaptation in 1992. Centuries-old Count Dracula of Transylvania was an immortal vampire whose prolonged life was fueled by the regular consumption of human blood. The original story sees this diabolical character descend upon London, England, as he seeks to literally leech off of the populace.

In 1922, German director F.W. Murnau sought to do a silent film adaptation of this classic horror tale. However, since Murnau could not acquire the rights to the novel, he simply altered the name of the title character - Dracula becomes "Orlok" - and followed the basic story. However, his alterations were equally striking and genius. Stoker's novel often presents Count Dracula as a stylish, debonair creature which is able to shift his appearance and demeanor in order to seduce his prey. Murnau's Count Orlok is a ghastly creature whose mere appearance is enough to strike fear into both fellow characters and us viewers. His deathly pallor, long and sharp claws and teeth, and bald pate give him the appearance of the ghoulish vampire that he is.

It was this major change to the arch vampire's physical appearance which Herzog most obviously emulated from Murnau. However, Herzog did not stop there. Even more than Murnau, Herzog presents Orlok as a creature both terrifying and pitiable. The utter loneliness of immortality, as well as the isolation of being a uniquely despicable inhuman, are on full display in the 1979 version. The pall of death that follows Orlok wherever he goes can almost be taken as a supernatural extension of his depression and despair. When seen this way, the rash of plagues and deaths that follow Orlok to the big city carry a slightly different weight. It all makes for a film that is more engaging and challenging than a tale that relies on more primal suspense and terror.

When it comes to the finer detail in the movie, I feel that it can be a bit uneven. There are elements of pure genius, such as Jonathan Harker's initial journey to Orlok's castle. His lonely trek across the countryside builds an amazing sense of quiet, slowly mounting doom. Also, the scenes of plague and death in the capital city carry the same visual power as the strongest scenes in Herzog's brilliant Aguirre, The Wrath of God. And of course, Orlok's appearance is just as hideous as in the 1922 original. Herzog film mainstay and all-around wack-a-doo Klaus Kinski was the perfect casting choice.

Would you be as composed as Harker looks in this scene?
I sure wouldn't, with that thing pouring my wine.
However, not all elements hit the mark to me. The reactions of certain characters to Orlok were often oddly subdued. The most notable is Jonathan Harker. While Harker is a tad taken aback by Orlok's appearance, villainous posture, and predatory actions, he often seems relatively blase. The same goes for certain other characters, resulting in an inconsistent emotional tone at times. These are, however, smaller details amidst what is an exceptional horror film.

For those who haven't seen it, you should not expect anything resembling most modern, popular horror movies. There is less use of darkness, shadows, or horror movie cliches that accompany them. On the contrary, a surprising amount of the film features vibrantly colorful scenery, sets, and costumes, often filmed in broad daylight. This all makes for a creepy openness about the horrors in Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night, which makes it all the more unique and fascinating.