Ten thousand rats? Pssh...Judge Daryl Loomis eats ten thousand rats for breakfast.
There are things more horrible than death.
During the silent years, the Germans created the first real cinematic movement with their Expressionist films. The three masters of this art were Fritz Lang (Metropolis), Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and F.W. Murnau (Phantom). To modern German master Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo), Murnau was the king of this movement and his 1922 film Nosferatu was not only the best film of the era, but the greatest German film of all time. I suppose that's a debatable point, but he loved it so much that, in 1979, he created his own version of the story. Nosferatu the Vampyre is Herzog's version of Expressionism, one of the most striking films of his career, and now arrives on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.
Facts of the Case
Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz, Wings of Desire) has been tasked to travel to Romania to finalize a deal on a manor that a mysterious count (Klaus Kinski, Aguirre: The Wrath of God) wants to purchase in Harker's town of Wismer, Germany. His wife, Lisa (Isabelle Adjani, Subway) begs him not to go, but it's his job, so he sets out on the month long journey. Upon arrival, Harker discovers a seething beast of a man, mannered but strange, with fangs for teeth and claws for hands. They sign the papers and head back together on a ship, but when they get there, Harker doesn't recognize Lucy. He acts more like the count than his old self and, quickly, Lisa realizes that the count is really a vampire and her beloved Jonathan is transforming into one, as well.
Nosferatu the Vampyre is less a remake of F.W. Murnau's silent classic and more a re-imagining for a modern time. The expressionist lighting and shadows of the original are replaced with a contemplative existentialism that is much more fitting for 1979, when ideas of alienation have come to the forefront, especially in German cinema. As a result, the movie is filled with long shots of characters walking away from the camera by the beach or down a river, rather than the claustrophobic confines that dominate the earlier film. Those things still exist here, but there it's nature that dominates now. Herzog's ability to capture the duality of nature, both its beauty and its dread, is second to none and it's used to fantastic effect here.
This is especially true in the scenes where Harker must hike up the mountain from the town to the castle. He's already been infected with rumors about the horror that he'll find up there, and while he isn't outwardly superstitious, their warnings have definitely gotten into his head. So as he walks down the river, dwarfed by the water and the forest (even though he's at the front of the frame), his surroundings become monstrous, foreshadowing his ordeal to come.
When he arrives, we finally get to meet the count, played absolutely perfectly by Klaus Kinski. Arguably the biggest creep in cinema history playing the most revolting vampire of all is inspired casting, even if there would really have been no doubt that he'd be in the role. Kinski's such an incredibly physical actor that he outshines even the iconic Max Schreck, who played the original vampire. There may not be a more perfect role for Kinski, whose real life embodied the same kind of romantic monster he portrays here. Where his characters like Aguirre and Stroszek look like him, but act like others, his real self comes through the heavy makeup of Nosferatu.
Kinski is incredible, but Bruno Ganz and Isabelle Adjani nearly match him in skill and physicality. Even though Kinski is the dominant figure (he wouldn't have it any other way), Ganz carries the majority of the screen time, and carries it very well. Just as in the original version and the Bram Stoker novel from which it was based, he is our surrogate; we feel his fear and confusion because Ganz delivers it so well. Adjani acts almost as punctuation to the story. Lisa's almost psychic connection to Jonathan and the count makes it so that we know when things become grave and, while she does little more than scream and yell at Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), who is very different here as a man of science and uninterested in acting on Lisa's superstitions, she is an ethereal presence and extremely effective in the role.
Nosferatu the Vampyre is a slow burn and not really a horror movie in any traditional or modern sense. Instead, it's an exercise in mood and existential dread, two things that Werner Herzog does perfectly. The closest this gets to thrills and chills is the infestation of rats. Literally ten thousand were used on the boat, which will definitely creep out those with that phobia. For me, though, that sheer number is not as awful as the dinner scene (Herzog can always deliver a disgusting dinner scene), in which the people eat a gourmet meal happily, while the ground behind them is blanketed in churning rats.
I don't know that Nosferatu the Vampyre is Herzog's best film, but it is singular in his career. He trades on many of the same themes of nature, death, isolation, and alienation that this stage of his career was riddled with, he takes the vampire mythos and transfers it brilliantly into his own obsessions. This is classic stuff that rewards again and again.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (Blu-ray) is strong and a good representation of what Shout! Factory can do, but there are some unfortunate problems to contend with. Most of the time, the 1.85:1/1080p image looks great, a significant improvement over the old DVD for the film, but it's not perfect. In close ups and in daylight, the image looks brilliant, with fine detail that never existed before. Much of the film is naturally lit, so there's a little bit of softness to the colors, but that's as intended. The grain structure here is natural and accurate, so for all of this, there are zero complaints. The trouble comes in the darker scenes, especially those shot in a wide angle. Here, that grain structure dominates the frame, turning it into pure noise in a couple of crucial scenes and it just looks bad. I don't believe this is the fault of the transfer; the detail is still there, it's just focused on the grain. This was a problem in earlier versions, as well, but it's exacerbated in high-definition.
Luckily, there are no problems at all with the sound. Both the English and German versions feature two-channel Master Audio tracks and the German also features a remixed DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. They all sound basically identical and very strong, and though there isn't a lot of difference between the surround and stereo tracks, the expanded sound provides a little more dynamic range than the native track. There is no background noise to speak of anywhere and dialog and music both sound great, regardless of your choice.
The slate of extras isn't huge, but what's here is solid. It starts with an audio commentary with Herzog, who is always a pleasure to listen to discuss his films. He's less nihilistic here than in some others and seems to have genuine affection for this movie and what went into making it. He has a great memory and plenty of valuable insights into the filming, the backstory, and the performers. It's a top-notch track. We also have a ten-minute featurette from around the time of the film's release, which is interesting, but inessential. A photo gallery and some trailers close out the disc.
It's difficult to compare the two versions of Nosferatu; they're different films for different times. Herzog's version, though, is an amazing moody and dread-ridden picture, even if there isn't a scary moment in the film. The vampire is a romantic beast and there's nobody more suited to play that than Klaus Kinski, who makes his count into the role of a lifetime. Herzog fans already know that the Blu-ray for Nosferatu the Vampyre is a must own release, but for the uninitiated, just know that this is Herzog's singular vision boiled down into vampire mythos in a way that everyone must see at some point.
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