The first I had heard of this film was that it was the favorite film of all time of someone I knew, someone very smart and very strange. Then over the few years I’ve had this site, a few people have recommended it, and after I posted the review of John Badham’s Dracula, a received a new round of messages saying I should watch it. So for some reason, suddenly I said “Dang it all, why not?” Which turned out to be a good choice.
We open with imaged of mummified children. I’m on board! The whole thing is really grim and death-filled and not spooky, just realistic. Then we have slow-motion footage of a black bat amongst a blue sky, and find out that this film stars Klaus Kinski as Dracula, Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker, and Isabelle Adjani as Lucy. For some reason, this movie—like the Badham film—makes Lucy the main character and skips Mina entirely. I really have no idea what that’s about, but whatever.
So Jonathan meets Renfield, who sends Jonathan to Caste Dracula to arrange a bit of real estate. Jonathan goes to see Lucy, who is photographed like a Pre-Raphaelite heroine [I think it’s no accident that the poster for this film is in fluttery Art Noveau style], her outlined eyes and brown hair contrasting with the white wooden room around her. She tells Jonathan DON’T. GO. And then, seriously dude, do not go. She has had a baaaaad feeling about it. Jonathan goes.
Jonathan leaves Wismer [filmed in Delft, Dutch town made famous by Vermeer’s paintings], and heads into some SERIOUS wilderness. He heads into a wooded rocky mountain pass, mist in the distance, and onward—the movie successfully makes us feel that he is truly moving into a more wild, unruly and disturbing place in a way that other films like this haven’t been able to do. He stops at an inn for the night, and the townspeople collectively freak when she tells them where he’s headed. The innkeeper tells him don’t go. No one ever comes back from that place. Strange things happen there. The next day gypsies also warn him not to go, and will take him only so far. On his next day of traveling he passes through a massive gorge—the film truly makes us feel that he is entering a haunted wilderness. And it was around now that I first started to think “You know, this is EXACTLY how I always imagined it.”
Jonathan is picked up by a carriage and brought to Castle Dracula, where he meets the man himself. Kinski is made up like Max Schreck in the original Nosferatu, and his appearance here really works: he truly looks like an otherworldly being. He stares at Jonathan while he eats, eating nothing himself. When Jonathan cuts himself with a knife, Dracula seems truly driven into a frenzy by the blood. He gently offers to suck the wound clean, which Jonathan, thoroughly weirded out, politely declines. When he turns away for a moment, Dracula pounces and sucks his finger anyway. The next day, Jonathan walks around the creepily deserted castle. That night, as Jonathan eats, Dracula laments the futility of existence, giving hints of his weariness at his endless existence.
That night Dracula shows up in Jonathan’s room. We see Jonathan lying in his bed. But oh, he has a visitor. Dracula sucks Jonathan’s blood, and we cut to Lucy, feeling unsettled herself. The next day Jonathan again wanders the empty castle, realizing that he is locked in. He finds Dracula’s coffin downstairs, the man inside. That night he sees Dracula loading up his coffins and leaving. Jonathan realizes that he has been locked in and left to die. He is able to escape and is nursed back to health by gypsies. Unfortunately, no menacing by the three female vampires from the novel, but you can’t have everything. As it is, we’re already halfway through the film and have yet only covered the first section of the novel.
Now, look at the image above: isn’t that gorgeous? It calls on paintings and our collective memories of Gothic images and their meanings from art and novels. We cover the voyage of the Demeter fairly quickly, and soon the empty ship arrives in Wismer. It is presented in a spooky way as it seems to steer itself directly into a canal, and they bump a real ship up against the canal wall as it slowly comes to a stop.
You also have to love that they steered a REAL ship into a REAL canal, and what you’re about to witness a bunch of REAL rats overrunning everything—satisfying as you know today, almost all of this would be computer-generated. Anyway, unbeknownst to the town, those rats are carrying plague. There’s a good scene where the town elders are reading the ship’s log and get to the word “plague,” then all turn and try to force themselves through the door. Things continue, and things start to suck hard in Wismer.
Meanwhile Dracula comes to call on Lucy [appearing in her room with a good shadow effect] and asks her to give him some of the love she gives Jonathan. She repels him with her cross, and talks to Van Helsing about it the next day. This version features the most useless Van Helsing known to man, presented as a dottering old man who won’t consider anything that doesn’t have to do with science. Lucy realizes that it’s up to her, reads the book the gypsies gave to Jonathan, where she learns that if a pure-hearted woman diverts the Nosferatu from the cry of the cock, he will be obliterated.
I think you can see where this is headed, no? And here is where the film starts to lose focus, but we’re so late in that it doesn’t really matter that much. The town is consumed by plague… a point not really very well made or understood at first, but which you soon figure out. There’s a fair amount of Lucy wandering around, trying to get help, before she realizes no one will help. The story ends pretty much as you expect it, but there are some great things about Lucy’s big final scene. First is an example of a great effect… Dracula is standing beside Lucy’s bed, only his motionless white hand and lower body, clad in black, visible. One initially takes him as the background of the room, since he is so still. When he slowly starts to move and his head lowers into frame, the effects is as though he MATERIALIZED in the room, coming into form out of nothingness, which is good enough as it is, but incredible when one considers the simplicity of it all—a great effect without use of any “effects.” He pulls up her dress, and feels her naked thigh, then places his hand on her breast as he sucks her blood. The cock crows, and he rises to leave, but Lucy pulls him back. Herzog brings out the sexuality of the whole thing—Lucy must disgust herself to giving herself sexually to someone other than her husband—but while keeping it PG-13. There’s an unexpected little kicker at the end, and that’s it.
One thing I always said after reading the novel of Dracula [and Frankenstein] is “WHY can’t anyone make a decent movie out of this?” As I watched this film, finally I felt like “At last, his is EXACTLY how I pictured it” reading the novel, and when I later showed it to my friend for movie night he put his finger on the difference: in almost all other films, Dracula is presented as a sexy, romantic figure. But here he truly is presented as a figure of horror, his coming to an area like a curse. I was REALLY into Jonathan’s whole journey to Dracula’s castle… it was long, and you really felt he was heading into a remote, spiritually-cursed area. Dracula himself is also a frightening and inhuman CREATURE, not a sexy, alluring guy, and although there are moments you pity him, this isn’t his sob story.
Most of the shots are nice, roughly half are absolutely beautiful, and again, right in the look I imagined when I read the novel. Misty and moody and not without sun, but expressive of the mood of the piece. Herzog was obviously inspired by Pre-Raphaelite painting for the look of Lucy, who’s appearance is almost always electrifying with her black hair, white skin and dark-rimmed eyes. Her face is incredibly expressive, and that expressiveness is milked for all it’s worth throughout.
After watching it a second time, I pulled out the silent original and did a quickie fast-forward through it [easy with silent films!] and was surprised to find that not only is this a remake of the early story, which Herzog considers “perhaps the most important film ever made in Germany,” but borrows a large amount of its images from the original. You will see early versions of shots that are recreated and enhanced in the new version, and it makes a very interesting companion to the remake.
Anyway, if you like the novel of Dracula but have never seen a film version that really gets it, or if you’re a fan of the original film and want to see it lovingly remade by a master, or if you’d just like some vampires that are scary instead of silly or tragically sexy—or presented as brooding teen boys with abs—you’ll definitely have a worthwhile night with this.
You sure should, especially if you’re a fan of the novel or original film.