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Nosferatu The Vampyre
Werner Herzog's remake of F.W. Murnau's classic vampire film begins with a haunting opening credits sequence that strolls through an underground catacomb filled with mummified corpses. From here, with the macabre atmosphere instantly established, we travel into the home of Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) and his lovely wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) where that opening scene is instantly contrasted by the image of two kittens playing as a locket containing Lucy's picture and a lock of her hair dangles nearby. Jonathan tells her that he must go on a long journey to Transylvania to take care of some real estate business with a Count Dracula. Though the dream she had earlier tells her no good will come of this, he insists on following through as the money will be good.
Jonathan travels as far as he's able by horse and takes rest in an inn he comes across on the way. When he mentions his business at Dracula's castle, he's warned by the bartender and the gypsies in the establishment to stay away. He doesn't listen and before you know it he's once again off on his journey. As he gets closer to the castle, a strange carriage picks him up and upon his arrival, he comes face to face with Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) for the first time. Though it's late, the Count insists that Harker dine and when he nicks his finger with a knife, the Count can't help but suck the blood, telling him he's only doing it to prevent infection. Before long, Harker realizes that something strange is going on and that there's a whole lot more to fear about the Count than simply his rodent like features and sickly pale skin.
As Harker sets about his work, the Count becomes obsessed with the picture of Lucy in the locket, telling Jonathan how lovely her neck is, and when he sets about buying and then moving to property near the Harker home, he brings with him a plague of rats and leaving Jonathan locked in the castle. Harker injures himself in his escape and tries to beat Dracula back to town, but the ominous arrival of a ship full of rats with a dead man tied to the helm. When Dracula's arrival brings death to the townsfolk, Lucy rightfully fears for her life as he approaches her with his request for love. With no one else to turn to, she enlists the aid of Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), a man who knows only too well just how evil Dracula is…
A masterpiece of macabre atmosphere and morbid imagery, Herzog's take on the Dracula mythos manages to main a strong tone of horror without ever pushing things past its PG rating. There's very little blood here, no nudity and no real gore and yet Dracula is far more frightening here than in any of the sex and blood filled versions made over the years. Much of the credit for this has to go to Kinski, who looks absolutely sickening in his pallid makeup with his rat-like fangs and spidery finger movements. His long nails cast an ominous shadow and a scene in which only his shadow is visible as he approaches Lucy who cannot see his reflection in the mirror still resonates with the power to send chills down your spine. So strong is Kinksi's work here that you almost forget it's him under the makeup, no small feat for someone with such strong screen presence and instantly identifiable features and mannerisms as he. Bruno Ganz is good as Jonathan Harker, but it's Kinski and the gorgeous Isabelle Adjani who really stand out. She's got a fragility to her that makes the fear she experiences seem all the more real and it's easy to see why the Count would be instantly smitten with her.
Being a Herzog picture, the film unfolds at a deliberate pace. While some might find it a bit slow, in reality the picture uses long takes of scenic European mountain settings to contrast in strange ways with scenes of crawling rats and, of course, its central antagonist. The film also affords Dracula an obvious pathos. While he's a predatory creature his requests for love are hard not to sympathize with. The common theme of man against his environment that shows up in much of the director's work is here too, not only in Johnathan's attempts to travel across ragged, barren terrain but in the Count's attempts to travel to the city without being burned by the sun. Herzog's languid style combined with the lush visuals and fantastic performances make this an atypical horror movie to be sure, but also an extremely effective one.
Note: This Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory includes both the English and German language versions of the film. These are two fairly different cuts, as when Herzog was making the movie for Fox the studio wanted an English friendly option for North American territories. As such, Herzog shot the dialogue scenes twice, once with the actors speaking German and again with them performing in English. Because of this, the English version has a completely different vibe than the German one and it's nice to see both versions, which were included on the previous DVD release from Anchor Bay, included on this Blu-ray release. The English version actually runs a few seconds longer than the German version as well.The Blu-ray:
Shout! Factory presents both versions of Nosferatu on a 50GB disc in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.85.1 widescreen (the packaging states 1.78.1 but the black bars on the top and bottom of the frame say otherwise). The older DVD from Anchor Bay had a bit of a blueish tint to it sometimes and that's pretty much gone on this Blu-ray, which is a good thing. Contrast is pretty much dead on and color reproduction looks quite good. There isn't a whole lot of print damage at all, just a few specks here and there. Unfortunately, there's also some obvious noise reduction evident on both transfers that can occasionally mar fine detail. This doesn't affect the entire duration of the movie and sometimes when the movie is in motion you might not even realize it, but there are certainly spots where it stands out. Faces and skin look a bit waxy and are too smooth and there are spots where even buildings and trees lose the texture they might have otherwise shown had less noise reduction been employed here. Compression artifacts aren't really a big problem here, you might spot some in a few of the darker scenes but they're not particularly distracting but this transfer doesn't ever really get as detailed or film-like as most are probably going to have hoped for.Sound:
The German version of the movie gets both DTS-HD 2.0 and DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio options with optional subtitles in English only while the English cut gets only a DTS-HD 2.0 track. The audio is fine here. Dialogue is clean, clear and well balanced and the eerie score has good presence. The 5.1 mix doesn't get too crazy with the remix, it mostly just spreads the score around a bit and seems to leave everything else up front where it belongs. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion to note and these would seem to be a pretty accurate representation of the source material that offers better depth and a fuller sound than the past DVD release did.Extras:
There are two commentary tracks included on this disc, both play over the German version of the movie. The first track is with Herzog speaking in English with moderator Norman Hill. This is the same track that was included on the Anchor Bay DVD release from years back. If you haven't heard it before, it's a good commentary that covers everything from Herzog's leaving the U.S. after his visa expired to ride in rodeo's in Mexico to body preservation techniques to how this film ‘connected' the director to a certain flow of German culture. Hill keeps Werner talking as they discuss the landscapes that are used in the film, the involvement of Twentieth Century Fox and some of the issues that they had with the picture and some of the symbolism that is used in the movie, such as Harker's ‘crossing over' into Dracula's land when he crosses the river. Of course, he also talks about what it was like working with Kinski, as well as the rest of the cast, and how Kinski was ‘very, very good with his eyes' and the body movement that the actor used to convey the character of Dracula so effectively.
The second commentary, which is in German (English subtitles are provided), joins Herzog with moderator Laurens Straub. Understandably this does cover some of the same ground as the first track, again covering Herzog's time in Mexico to start with as it does tie into the mummified corpses that we see in the opening scene, but it covers quite a bit of additional ground as well, including how and why he chose the actors seen in the movie, using real gypsies in the movie, the suffering involved in Dracula's insect like existence, the infamous clock featured in the movie and more. He also talks about the ways in which this movie breaks away from what most would consider traditional horror movie standards, and how Herzog has difficulty distancing himself from his films even after decades have passed. He goes on to express the importance of images in film, how this film compares and contrasts with some of the movies Herzog made before and after Nosferatu and more. There's some dead air in a few spots but otherwise, this too is quite an interesting track and well worth listening to.
Also included on the disc (carried over from the previous Anchor Bay DVD release) is a thirteen minute vintage featurette entitled The Making Of Nosferatu. This piece is quite interesting as most of it was shot on set during the production and it gives us a chance to see both Herzog and Kinski, usually in full makeup, at work. Herzog speaks openly about the influence of German expressionist cinema, working with the infamous Kinski and about his directorial style. At one point we see the director walking around in a cloak helping out with the scene in which the coffins are carried into the town square. It's quite interesting. Additionally we get two trailers for the feature, a still gallery, animated menus and chapter selection. The cover art sleeves for this release is also reversible.Final Thoughts:
Shout! Factory's Blu-ray release of Werner Herzog's masterful Nosferatu The Vampyre falls short in the transfer department but offers up good audio and not only carries over the extras from the previous DVD release but includes a new commentary track as well. As to the movie itself, it remains one of the most interesting, beautiful and haunting vampire films ever made and it succeeds not only as a horror film but as a testament to the abilities of both Herzog and Kinski to create wholly original works of cinematic art. It's a shame the picture couldn't be better here but this is such a great movie that it has to come recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.