Last night I watched both Nosferatu movies. I believe they are best reviewed together since Herzog’s remake of the silent film is in many ways an homage. Almost all of the “dialog” of the silent film is reused word for word. The appearance of the Dracula character and even the sets have been constructed to mimic the look of the originals. Mercifully, the science of motion picture imaging had progressed tremendously between 1922 and 1979 so the picture quality of the latter film has none of the pioneering qualities of its predecessor. Night scenes weren’t shot during the day and there is sound so the actors can restrain their pantomime gesturing. But that being said it is essentially the same story.
In this version of Dracula, Renfield is a “land agent,” sort of a nineteenth century realtor and he employs Jonathon Harker to go to Transylvania to sign papers to buy a house in Bremen, Germany. Jonathon leaves his wife Nina behind fretting about his safety. When he gets to the environs of Castle Dracula the townsfolk warn him about spooky stuff but he goes anyway. Dracula meets him and signs the papers and then feeds off of Harker for a few days, packs his dirt boxes and drives off with horse and wagon. Harker escapes from the castle, and after recuperating for some time in the village heads for home by horse.
Dracula takes the slow boat across the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the North Sea to Bremen. Enroute, he sucks the life out of the crew so that the boat drifts into Bremen with only the captain’s lifeless body tied to the ship’s wheel. Somehow Dracula sneaks off the boat and takes up residence in the house across the street from the Harkers. Dracula also brings a goodly supply of plague rats with him and the town starts dying off of the bubonic plague in droves.
While Dracula was enroute by ship Renfield is somehow driven mad and starts eating flies and biting animals and people to get blood. He is cast into a mad house but eventually escapes and capers around town awaiting “the master” and acting like a gibbering idiot.
All this time Nina has been suffering mentally from the strain of worrying about Jonathon and because she seems to be a clinically depressed heroine. When he arrives, she reads this book on vampires that Jonathon has specifically told her not to read. This disobedience seemed the most realistic detail of the movie. Nina reads that a pure spirited woman who offers her blood freely to the vampire can keeps him drinking until dawn. And at that point the sun will destroy him. Nina feigns illness and sends Jonathon to get a doctor. She invites Dracula to her home and he falls for the trick and is evaporated in a puff of smoke. Jonathon and the Doctor arrive just in time for Nina to greet Jonathon and expire from exsanguination.
In the 1979 version the ending is less positive. When Nina expires Jonathon, who has been slowly becoming a vampire for the last few days goes full Nosferatu and escapes the town on horseback to start his own reign of death somewhere else.
So, what about these movies? The silent version is a product of German Expressionism and uses bizarre and unreal imagery to evoke the sense of fear and dread. The Dracula character is a cartoonish figure. He is exaggeratedly tall and gaunt, has a dead white skin color, an elongated hairless head, protruding front teeth and ridiculously long and curved fingernails. The sets at Castle Dracula showcase bizarre architectural details like the odd shaped doors and the monolithic walls in the crypt. Everything is unnatural and bizarre. I would say for a silent film this is a successful visual representation of a horror story. But remember, it’s a silent film. That means the acting is painfully exaggerated to pantomime the meaning. Both of the Harkers are always gesticulating and grimacing to let you know they are emoting something or other. I think very few modern viewers can get past the staginess of silent films to enjoy the story as a story. So, it’s a successful silent horror film but I couldn’t recommend it to the general audience.
As for Werner Herzog’s 1979 homage, that’s more of something we can discuss in normal movie terms. I’d call it an art film. It goes a long way to provide good cinematography, good (if odd) acting and a rationale for the actions of the primary characters. Dracula even gets to tell of his ennui and his envy for those who can die. And he invests the characters with a reasonable level of personality above what was provided in the silent film. There is even a small amount of humor thrown in, primarily around the character of Renfield but what struck me as funniest was a scene at the very end of the movie. Dr. Van Helsing is holding a bloody stake that he has used to permanently kill Dracula. Two town officials arrive on the scene and Jonathon denounces Van Helsing to them stating that the doctor has murdered good old Count Dracula. The magistrate orders his underling to have Van Helsing arrested and jailed for murder but the subordinate argues with him that there are no police left to arrest him, no jailors left to imprison him and no town officials left to charge and try him.
Herzog has succeeded in making an atmospheric, artistic horror film. It’s not particularly frightening but it attempts to adhere to the spirit of the original Dracula story, a sort of late nineteenth century gothic fairy tale. So, my recommendation is restricted to people who enjoy art films. And it wouldn’t kill a horror fan to watch it. It just might not be completely what he would be hoping for. So, there’s my Halloween day horror review that I promised.