Monday, September 19, 2011

European Horror Month Part 3 - Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (1979)

...with these goddamned rat-teeth?

I've been wanting to rewatch this one for years. I first saw it back in High School when they had a special midnight showing during Halloween weekend at the old Babcock Theater. Anyone from Billings, Montana can tell you all about the Babcock's reputation for being haunted, which had everyone in a creepy mood long before frame one flickered. What I remember most vividly was the opening scene with the dessicated bodies of plague victims, particularly the children.

European horror and dead children go together like bullets and guns.

At the time, I had no real knowledge of film history, and very limited experience with foreign films. I remember being disappointed that the movie wasn't scarier. This time around, however, watching Klaus Kinski's Dracula eyeballing Harker like a thick, juicy porterhouse unnerved me in all the right ways. Kinski is the real reason to see this movie. It is well known that the man was genuinely unhinged, and you feel like he might do any manner of insane shit at any given moment. He does his best to live up to Max Shreck's immortal performance, but can we blame him if he falls slightly short? After all, Max Shreck could scare the crap out of you with his looks alone, while Kinski, being a good-looking man, had to rely only on the insanity pouring forth from his eyes.

Mein Gott, you look juicy!
The film moves at a languid pace, and features a never-ending walking sequence that puts The Two Towers to shame. When the villagers refused to take Harker to Dracula's castle in a carriage, I had to wonder whether that was an artistic choice, or the German Film Commission was leaning on Herzog to include as much landscape as possible in a bid to increase tourism. Joking aside, the endless walk to Dracula's castle does serve a purpose: to give the audience a sense for the remoteness of the castle and show just how far from civilization Harker must journey. This is Dracula's realm, and Harker will be wholly his prisoner. My main problem with the sequence wasn't it's length, but the music. Wagner is used extensively throughout the film, and it never seems appropriate. Rather than forboding, it comes off as triumphant and kills the mood. I'd gladly take a creepy synth score over this.

We get it Herzog; Germany's a beautiful country. Can we get back to the story now?
Similar to the misstep with the music, the film suffers from an inconsistent atmosphere. At times, the film is dark and creepy, with dank, decaying underground crypts and white nightgowns billowing in the moonlight. But at other times, the movie is just too bright. For example, take the interior of Dracula's castle:

Call me a slave to the Universal Monsters aesthetic, but doesn't this place seem a little too bright and cheerful to house the King of the Undead?

These stylistic missteps aside, I really like the twists Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht puts on the classic Dracula story. In this version, Dracula doesn't just come to town and decimate the population one throat at a time, he brings the plague with him. Some of the most haunting scenes from the film are the ones in which the villagers left alive throw a festival, choosing to party the rest of their lives away since hope has fled. And the shots of literally thousands of rats make my skin crawl, and I normally love the little buggers.

Fine dining amongst the plague rats.
 The film ends in a stereotypically depressing German fashion, the details of which I'll leave to you to discover. When the credits rolled, I wasn't precisely sure whether I'd enjoyed the film or not. It's a far cry from Hollywood's Dracula film from the same year (which I unreservedly love, warts and all). I'm sure there's much more meaning in Herzog's version, and I wish the copy I watched was my own, because I'm sure the film would improve upon repeat viewings. Regardless, the movie is an interesting viewing experience with lots of flaws, lots of unforgettable imagery, and a enough intense Klaus Kinski brooding to choke a coffin full of plague rats. Why not give it a try?

He was born to play this role. Why else would his mother have named him Klaws? Wa wah wah waaah...


  1. I really love this one. I won't disagree with any of your complaints, I've just always found it to be super surreal and cool. And the plague imagery....sooooo good. Just love it.

  2. I'm not familiar with this one, but I should check it out as a fan of the original Nosferatu. I saw the old Nosferatu in a 100 year old theater in Milwaukee. Like the theater you went to, ours is also rumored to be haunted. Although, aren't all old theaters? ;) It was a great experience, because we had live percussion playing through the whole silent movie.

  3. The Mike - While I was going back through the film to get the screencaps, I found myself liking it more and more. So, maybe I'll find the love at some point.

    Justine - Much jealousy. Someday when I unearth a crate of pirate treasure, I'm going to buy an old, haunted theater and show nothing but old horror movies.

  4. I bet you could buy the Babcock without any problem. I would happily watch horror movies there anytime I'm in Billings. I've got mixed feelings finding out that this is the version they were showing there. I had tickets one year, and it was cancelled at the last minute. I was disappointed about that, but that was when I thought it was the 1922 version. Not sure how I feel about missing this version.

  5. I always liked the original 1922 version... This one from 1979 was good the atmospheric aspect was well carried out I like De Foe's performance in "Shadow of the Vampire" I own the Sideshow 12 inch "Silver Screen" edition figure in my collection ...and have been a fan of Graff Orlock since my youth
    The Doctor

  6. Dr. Theda,

    It amazes me how scary Shreck's Orlock still is, even in our age of amazing make-up effects and extreme brutality in horror. And Max Shreck is such a mysterious figure that he really does kind of make you wonder... which is why Shadow of the Vampire was such a clever concept.

    I just checked out your blog as well. I didn't think you were serious about being a bank robber, at first. Anyhow, stay cool and welcome to the Mancave.


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