Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922), Nosferatu (Werner Herzog, 1979), Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000)

So my remake special a couple months back didn’t go so well (watching both Invasion of the Body Snatchers back-to-back)…liked one, hated the other, so naturally I’m doing it again, with a remake and a half…so this edition of remake special is….

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

vs.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Werner Herzog, 1979)

with a touch of

Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000)

I’ve always been of the thought that less is more in horror movies, that your imagination is a hell of a lot scarier than some visual creature the filmmaker can throw at you, making film like Alien so successful…well, leave it to one of the first films, and definitely one of the best, to show me that the opposite can be just as true.  What Murnau’s film presents us with is almost no coherent “plot”, overacting, and really a mess of a general film structure, and yet plot is replaced by mood, and more importantly Max Schreck, to create one of cinema’s most important horror experiences.  Count Orlok as portrayed by Shreck shreds any semblance of an actor performing a role, or even a “character”, and simply becomes an instinctual creature, fully realized and more than fully believable.  His appearance and mannerisms, unnatural rise from the coffin, and even the simple act of emerging from the shadows and creeping through doorways as unnatural as he is make him one of the most terrifying and unforgettable images the cinema could possibly throw at you.  And it’s what Murnau does around Count Orlok that make that character and the film as a whole the moody, expressionistic piece of horror that it is.  There’s a scene where Count Orlok moves in on hutter, only to retreat at the distant cries of Ellen.  It’s a scene that would be brilliant in its execution even today, let alone in 1922, with one of the first instances of this type of cross-cutting that Murnau revolutionized.  This film is pretty much purely visual, moody, and while not necessarily terrifying, the word i’d use is foreboding.  Brilliant.

If Klaus Kinski’s Count isn’t quite as cringe-worthy or eerie as Max Schreck’s, it’s no doubt a result of making this story into a modern film narrative.  Clearly the strength of Herzog’s version over Murnau’s is the ability to tell a story more logically, but in the end that might actually be a weakness.  Both films tell the exact same story, with the exact same things happening, which in Herzog’s version loses some of its aura and that foreboding and mystery…the overacting that was perfectly suited for the original becomes cliched dialogue in the remake.  The Count’s castle isn’t nearly as memorable or eerie as the original (and looks like it was lifted straight out of the bishop’s house in Fanny and Alexander, which with Herzog’s history of cheap productions wouldn’t at all surprise me).  Even the stock-type organ music of the original suited it, especially at the climax, while Popol Vuh’s music here, while perfectly suited for Aguirre and even Fitzcarraldo, felt like a step above elevator music.  Most importantly, Max Schreck fully immersed himself as an otherworldly presence, while much of Klaus Kinski’s performance just feels like him acting like Klaus Kinski in a shitload of makeup, which, granted, was inevitable given both Kinski’s track record and in general the move from silent cinema to a talkie… except for his big send-off at the end, where I felt pity and dare I say empathy for the guy (or creature).  What this remake does have going for it, though, is that typical Herzog touch of giving the unreal a touch of mega-realism, if you follow me…like the documentary feel of Aguirre or the hyper-realistic feel of the otherwise bizarre Stroszek, what I’m think of here is Harker’s bizarre yet realistic dinner with the Count, the wonderfully macabre and bizarre fate of Harker at the end which was absent in the original, and the town post-plague, with that sense of both death and joy at the feast in a way only Herzog could portray.  Obviously it’s impossible for this film to live up to or be as revolutionary as the original, but Herzog’s touch makes it just about as great and unique a vampire movie as you can find post-1922.

And what can I say about the quasi making-of movie Shadow of the Vampire?  It’s just not much to run home about (though granted, the two predecessor movies I watched right before it were made by two of the greatest filmmakers who have ever lived).  Very silly, almost to the point where you can’t take it seriously (even though that’s probably the point), a screenplay that’s just not good, and an ending that’s frankly insulting to both the audience and the legacy of F.W. Murnau, but Willem Dafoe is just adorable as Schreck, which makes up for just about all of that.  And it shows just how much of a crock the Oscars have become when this brilliantly frightening, deep, and damn funny performance doesn’t get the win it so definitely deserved.

Nosferatu (1922): 9.5/10
Nosferatu (1979): 8.5/10
Shadow of the Vampire: 7.5/10

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