Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) | The rats are coming! Werner Herzog’s haunting horror is here in HD!

nosferatu (1979)_blu-ray

In spite of grim omens from his wife Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani), estate agent Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) leaves his hometown of Wismar behind to venture deep into the Carpathian Mountains to close a property deal. But on meeting Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski), Harker discovers the sickly, wraith-like creature is a centuries-old vampire intent on bringing death in the form of an army of plague-carrying rats to Harker’s idyllic town…

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979)

1979 was a great year for vampires on the big screen and as a 15-year-old already weaned on reruns of the classic Universal and Hammer horrors on TV, I was spoilt for choice. There was Frank Langella’s charming lady killer in the big-budget Dracula, Reggie Nalder’s frightening albino vampire Kurt Barlow in Salem’s Lot (it was on the big screen in Australia), and even George Hamilton’s silly dispossessed Count in Love at First Bite.

I loved them all, so it’s not surprising then that I found Werner Herzog’s arty Euro-horror Nosferatu the Vampyre, which was, in effect, a colour remake of FW Murnau’s 1922 silent classic, one of the most boring films ever: slow-moving, with no action and practically no dialogue to speak of, and a constant drone for a soundtrack. Even the legendary Klaus Kinski’s portrayal of the bald, bat-eared, rodent-toothed vampire wasn’t half as enjoyable as Nalder’s Barlow, which also drew its inspiration from Max Schreck’s Orlok in Murnau’s original.

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979)

Fast-forward 35 years and as my cinema tastes have developed so has my eagerness to revisit Herzog’s wholly original take on the Dracula story. Thankfully, the BFI’s Blu-ray release – a tantalising taster for their bigger, bolder Herzog box-set release in July – was the perfect excuse.

Rather than retelling Bram Stoker’s novel, Nosferatu the Vampyre is a neo-expressionist restaging of Murnau’s silent classic. Critics of the day called Herzog’s imagining ‘a magnificent miscalculation’, but age has proven it to be a masterful contribution to the vampire canon.

In Herzog’s dread-filled tale, Dracula (Kinski) is an immortal phantom longing for death. When Harker (Ganz) enters his ghostly realm, embodied by a castle ruin that may ‘only exist in the imagination of men’, Dracula is able to cross over, bringing with him his instruments of death: the plague rats and a now infected Harker.

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979)

The film is rich in references to expressionist cinema – shadowy camera work, dramatic lighting effects, affected gestures – but its use is not just to pay homage. It’s all about breathing cinematic life into Herzog’s vision of a waking nightmare and the film’s key theme, the danger of ghostly dreams that ‘steal life and spread death, whether in the form of vermin, monsters or men’ (*). The castle scenes are genuinely creepy: its broken windows and bats hanging about lending it an authentic haunted air. It’s here that Kinski also gets full reign to bring depth and empathy to his melancholy Count. It’s an exquisite nuanced performance that shows the actor at his height and became his most iconic role.

Expressionism aside, the film is also pure Herzog. The location scenes set in Slovakia’s High Tatra mountains (standing in for the Carpathians), where Ganz’s Harker encounters (real) local gypsies, are hugely impressive, while Popul Vuh’s ethereal music enhances the film’s naturalistic qualities. It makes for a perfect counterpoint to Dracula’s artificial nocturnal realm.

Meanwhile, the scenes in Wismar (actually Delft in The Netherlands), where Adjani comes into her own as the self-sacrificing Lucy, are painterly and surreal. And it’s here that Herzog’s other key theme, how bourgeois society collapses under assault from the unconventional (a theme also at the crux of Hammer’s 1958 Dracula), is captured most deftly in the scenes of the townspeople dining outdoors as the plague-carrying rats swarm around them. Those scenes, and the ones of Kinski’s wraith suckling on Lucy remain forever haunting.

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979)

Strangely, after watching Herzog’s hypnotic horror recently, I had the most vivid of nightmares. A dark shadow crept into my room, then laid beside me in my bed, waiting for me to fall asleep so as to suck the life force out of me. Could it have been Herzog’s cinematic alchemy at work or just those years of watching Dracula movies finally impressing upon me?

The limited edition Blu-ray Steelbook features the re-mastered 1080p presentations of the English and German versions in the original aspect ratio 1.85:1 with original PCM 1.0 mono audio (German and English) and alternative 5.1 Surround audio (German) with optional subtitles. The special features include audio commentary with Werner Herzog, on-set promotional film featuring interviews with Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski (1979, 13 mins), trailer, stills gallery and illustrated booklet featuring a new essay by Laurie Johnson (*).

The BFI’s Werner Herzog Collection box sets, which span 20 years of the director’s career, from 1967 – 1987, will be released on 21 July on Blu-ray (8 discs) and DVD (7 discs).


About Peter Fuller

Peter Fuller is an award-winning print, radio and television journalist and producer, with over 30 years experience covering film and television, with a special interest in world cinema and popular culture. He is a leading expert on the life and career of Vincent Price and actively promotes the actor's legacy through publications, websites and special events.

Posted on May 17, 2014, in Classic World Cinema, Cult classic, Horror, Must See, Must See, Must-See, World Cinema and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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