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Review: ‘Nosferatu’ (1979) – Death is Not The Worst

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Review: 'Nosferatu' (1979) - Death is Not The Worst

I come to you like a prophet from the mountains, bearing gospel handed from on high. Or maybe I’m Odin, cut down from that Tree of Knowledge, head filled with heretofore unseen and brilliant visions. Or, maybe I’m just a guy who recently watched a particular horror movie for the first time. The key, and fundamental point here is that I’m always a guy watching horror movies. It’s what I do. So, I feel desensitized to horror sometimes. How shocking can something be if you watch it daily? Can one still be truly frightened if one is over-exposed to frightening imagery? I have wonderful news.

Nosferatu (1979) speaks to and disturbs the part of me beneath my thinking brain. It strikes a cord in the ancient, animal part.

I know very little about Werner Herzog. I know he’s a guy I’m supposed to know about. In my old age I’m trying to be ok with that. It’s good to not know things, cause otherwise, how are you gonna learn?

I’ve been the type that’s gotta know everything. Before I dropped out, I was a film major. It was thrilling for me to connect with people about movies. What became a chore was pretending like I had to know every single movie ever. That’s a true phenomenon I’m sure we’ve all witnessed in the wild. The usually young, usually male film buff who takes pride in stumping everyone else. He’s the guy who’ll talk your ear off about a Werner Herzog-type.There’s value to encyclopaedic knowledge in any field. But, as I get older, the need and the aggression in being The Film Buff doesn’t appeal. I am happily aware of my blindspots in movie history. Because therein lies DISCOVERY.

So, it turns out one of my big ol’ blindspots was the 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau’s classic silent terror Nosferatu. I knew of it, of course. And I’d watched the 1922 version. What a freaky miracle of filmmaking that thing was. You’re telling me a movie released 100 years ago STILL has the power to unsettle? There’s something terrifying in just how otherworldly the 1922 Nosferatu felt. Depending on how you watch it, though, there’s a lot that might create distance with the viewer. For starters, it was released a full century ago, which sometimes makes it difficult to suspend one’s disbelief. In addition, we moved into the talkie-era for a reason. There aren’t a lot of us who think “I much better connect with characters when I see them silently mouth words and then I read that dialogue in written form.” But nonetheless, 1922’s Nosferatu created some indelibly striking images; several shots, including the way Count Orlock creeps and the shadows he casts, have been burned into our collective subconscious.

Now let’s jump forward to 1979, when Werner Herzog reimagined this reimagining. It was kinda the late-70s version of Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, marrying an earlier film to its source material, while staying faithful to both. And this Herzog guy really had the resources to be the man for the job. Even without being familiar with the rest of Herzog’s filmography, you can see he’s drawing from a lot of experience to make this movie. There are stylistic touchpoints from what feel like a lot of different types of movies. Some of the imagery is presented with stark, documentary-like matter-of-factness. Elsewhere, the picture is an opera. Then, it’s a dream. Then, a nightmare. To balance all of these feelings while keeping the movie tonally consistent is a mystifying feat. Despite this movie’s ability to make you feel several things at once, it never feels disjointed.

Nosferatu 1979 Image

At the core of what makes this movie scary is Klaus Kinski, our Count Dracula. The guy seems like a born freak. Guy sounds like a fuckin scumbag, honestly. Everything you read about his personal life makes me believe he had the evil inside him to effectively portray our villain. Because boy howdy, is this ever a good villain. Your Christopher Lees and your Frank Langellas, in all their pomp and sophistication, have NOTHING on the fear struck by this rodent-like version of Dracula.

Kinski’s portrayal gets to the crux of what’s frightening about Dracula. There is a “otherworldliness,” sure; there’s the ethereal way he glides upon his victims. There’s the tractor-beam pull of his gaze. But what’s scariest is the distorted humanity in there a little deeper. Because let’s not forget, this monster was once a human Count. And while Langella and Lee portray a vampire as a figure to be sought after (or at least a figure who enjoys being a vampire), Kinski instead reveals the ancient human being cursed with eternal suffering. Some movies, your Dracula seems to have super powers. Here he has vile survival tactics. A cataclysmic temper snaps a particular moment in two; Count Dracula slams a chair against a table so unexpectedly I lept. It felt like the acts of a very angry man. There are tales of Kinski’s legendarily poor behaviour and attitude, and you can see that here. Because Dracula would be pissed off. It would really suck to be Dracula.

He’s like a rat, this ‘79 Drac. It’s no surprise then when the count surrounds himself in vermin and disguises his spree as the plague. What better way to hide one’s victims than by taking refuge within the disease-carrying ports of call of the day. Like floating death, the Count sails in with his coffins of scourge, ready to corrupt and destroy all of Wismar.

Nosferatu 1979 Movie Still

The film also underlines, in a lot of trenchant  ways I’m not sure I understand, the differences between Western and Eastern Europe. It feels like there is fear and a lock of understanding towards a lot of those traditions from lands ending in “-sylvania.”

What the film doesn’t do is spend a whole hell of a lotta time with Van Helsing. Hugh Jackman had me thinking Van Helsing must be the main character in Braham Stoker’s book. But he’s hardly in Nosferatu at all! Instead, it’s this real wet noodle guy, Jonathan Harker. He’s fine, but he’s absolutely the least interesting thing on screen anytime he shares the frame with another character. And fair enough, cause some of these other guys seem like they’re ready to tear through the screen. This is especially true of Renfield, who is just electric in the weirdest ways in this movie. That character is played her by Roland Topor, a real artist whose work includes the novel The Tenant that noted rapist and pedophile Roman Polanski turned into an okay flick.

Anyway, here’s the point of it all: This is a strange and artful retelling of a story we all know fairly well. But Werner Herzog and the team he works with bring freshness to the story. There are several images that strike fear directly into the heart of even this most-jaded of horror fans.

Werner Herzog’s Noserferatu: Phantom der Nacht is available to stream on Peacock, Tubi and Crackle. I highly, highly recommend that you search to find it immediately.

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