During the making of Fitzcarraldo (1982) director Werner Herzog decided to actually cart and drag a 300-ton steamship through the rainforest of the Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru, rather than using miniatures, forced perspectives or other special effects. The final results on film are extraordinary. Herzog attempted the feat because he noted that it had never been done before for a movie, calling himself “Conquistador of the Useless.”
With rare exceptions, Herzog’s films are realistic and minimalistic character explorations. Off hand, I can think of one Herzog vehicle —Incident at Loch Ness (2004), which uses CGI. Herzog stars and narrates this film, but it was directed by Zak Penn. Herzog’s films focus on people and relationships. Some, like the largely forgotten and gorgeously photographed Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) (nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes), starring Bruce Spence (The Road Warrior, 1982) have a political message. Most of his films are beautifully shot, such as Green Ants, Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), and Herzog’s revisionist spin on the German Expressionist classic Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922), titled Nosferatu the Vampyre (Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht) (1979), just released by Shoutfactory as a stunning HD Blu-ray transfer.
Nosferatu the Vampyre is an exceptional homage made during the same time-frame that John Carpenter completed Halloween (1979), Ridley Scott helmed Alien (1979), and mainstream American horror was evolving into mad slasher films and creature eat ’em uppers (my term), respectively. Herzog’s boogieman of course is Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski, b. 1926 d. 1991), portrayed as a sickly and grotesque elf-like being, carrying plague and in turn being plagued by the beauty of Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani). There are no transformations from humanoid to bat, rat, wolf nor hyena. Herzog implies Dracula’s metamorphosis through simple images of a bat in motion or rats crawling as pestilence on the vessel Demeter or on the mainland.
The film was lensed in a distinct expressionist style by Herzog collaborator and cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. I don’t know of any horror films from that era shot and designed quite like Nosferatu the Vampyre, with muted color palate, asymetrical photographic compositions (just like Murnau’s original) and dramatic use of light and dark lighting contrasts, because it’s probably the only horror film from the 70’s shot that way. I might be wrong. The European settings (Germany?) help the same way Dan Curtis’ version of Dracula (1974) works —the Count is in home territory.
The makeup effects are old school prosthetic appliances helmed by Dominque Colladant and Reiko Kruk. Kinski is particularly vile as the Count. I think he is terrific in the lead role and along with Max Schrek (Nosferatu, 1922) and Reggie Nalder as Barlow (Salem’s Lot, ironically also made in 1979), is arguably the ugliest vampire in cinema history. I also like Roland Topor’s performance as the insectivorous Renfield —he reminds me of Peter Lorre (who would have made an awesome Reinfield) when he laughs.
A few final comments on the Blu-ray pressing. The film looks great and has been out of print for several years. I had an old VHS copy, but there is no comparison. Both the English and German versions of the film are presented. The English version has an outstanding dub. I believe Kinski performed the English dubbing for his parts, but I may be wrong. It sounds like Kinski. I can hear Herzog calling up Kinski on the phone: “Now KLOWZ…Be nice… I need you to come in for the English dialogue….” “Piss off VAHR-Ner…”.
There are also a few trailers and a supplemental film on Making of Nosferatu (worth watching). This is essential horror viewing and one of the 5 best vampire films ever made.