January 9 - Nosferatu the Vampyre

 


            Let’s oversimplify things a little and say that the Dracula story has two halves, two main locations. The first is Dracula’s castle, where the unsuspecting Jonathan Harker, after a long journey and much harbinging, arrives. Here, Dracula is in his element, with his shadows and his vampiric brides, and poor Jonathan is increasingly adrift and preyed upon. In act two Dracula arrives in London, where he mingles with wealthy English society, suave and charming, his monstrosity unobserved, concealed beneath a strange sort of sex appeal.

            It’s not that the novel is split into these two halves, but rather the pop culture adaptations that made Dracula’s reputation, and provided much of the raw material for cinematic horror, tend to choose one or the other. The Bela Lugosi Dracula chooses the latter – Renfeld pays a visit to Dracula in his castle, but this occupies a comparatively brief span of the runtime – we do not even meet our heroine until Dracula arrives in London. In comparison, the German expressionist Nosferatu chooses the first half. When Dracula does arrive – no longer in London but now a modest German town – he arrives as a force of nature, a pestilence that ravages the landscape and population, leaving our heroine to make a desperate, suicidal effort to destroy him.

            And so we have a tale of two Draculas, so different that for the Coppola version to unite both halves, Dracula must undergo a physical transformation, from inhuman creature of the night to well-dressed Londoner about town. Nosferatu takes place on Dracula’s (or rather, Count Orlok’s) turf, with the ratlike figure of Dracula almost another part of the German expressionist landscape. In Dracula, our heroes don’t need to travel; Dracula comes to them. He meets them for a night at the opera. He even wanders into Mina and Jonathan’s abode to have a chat with Van Helsing.

            I hate overgeneralization, but I do think it’s fair to say that many of the horror movies that followed these early vampires can be broadly categorizes as either Nosferatus or Draculas. In the former, the heroes travel to meet the monster, arriving in an unfamiliar place, perhaps being warned away by harbingers marked as a racial or classed other. In the latter, the monster walks among them. The former’s monsters are more inclined to invoke disgust – like Nosferatu, they recall pestilence, filth, excrement, entropy, abjection. He is a distinct other. In the latter, the monster is more human, more like us. He invites identification, even desire.

            Take Jason and Michael for example, otherwise interchangeable except for location and what lies behind the mask. Jason dwells in a remote rural area his victims must travel to. He is the victimized son of a blue-collar work. He may have been disabled. Behind his mask is deformity and rot. Michael on the other hand comes to the suburbs where his unsuspecting victims wait. He is not quite human, but he is from the suburbs; he used to be an ordinary child just like the ones his victims are babysitting. Depending on the version, his favorite victim is either his neighbor or his sister. Behind the mask – we see it only for an instance in the original film – is the face of an ordinary man.

            Let’s try it with the movies I’ve watched so far this month. Impetigore, Kill Baby Kill, House of Wax, and The Hills Have Eyes are all clear Nosferatus. The heroes travel to a remote location to encounter locals who are at best unhelpful and at worst murderous. In the last two, the locals are deformed and grimy. In Kill Baby Kill, the villains are supernatural or supernaturally-inclined and live, like Dracula, in a ruined manor. Impetigore’s Maya is closer to the source of her horror – it is her childhood self who dwelled in the ruined old house – but she still finds herself up against superstitious locals and a supernatural force outside of herself.

            The others are a bit more complicated. The Lair of the White Worm is a clear Dracula; its setting is hardly exotic for an English film based on an English novel, and its aristocratic monster schmoozes the heroes without a problem. The Seventh Victim requires travel, but to an urban setting where the villains seem just like ordinary people. The Stepford Wives has the travel pattern of a Nosferatu but the threat pattern of a Dracula as our heroine is menaced by her own husband. And Picnic at Hanging Rock requires only limited travel but still confronts the girls with a cosmic and geological unknown – but then again it’s far from a typical horror story.

            All of this without saying anything about this particular Nosferatu. This is my favorite version of the Dracula story by quite a bit, an able modernization of the silent original that manages to capture Murnau’s eeriness. There were shots in this movie that really did make me shudder. It was this movie that made me understand the degree to which Dracula’s castle is a dreamscape. In no version of Dracula has Jonathan been so doomed, or Lucy (in the Mina role this time) been so alone. Van Helsing is useless; Lucy is brave and enterprising. This version also dwells on Dracula’s plague, with lengthy shots of rats, abandoned property, and villagers trying to make the most of their final days. It is visually spectacular without being glossy, getting at the Eurocult fairy-tale drab beauty in so many of my favorite European films. And the Dracula is grotesque – the way we linger on his buckteeth fangs and immortal pathos made me realize how far he is from Lugosi’s Dracula. Less human and more sympathetic, Herzog’s Dracula is a reminder that vampires really were scary once upon a time. (Though before you say anything, they’ve been sexy for just as long).

            Anyway, I like this kind of artsy shit. If you like artsy shit too, you’ll probably like this one.

           

The Talent: Werner Herzog is a prolific German director best known to Americans for calling Baby Yoda “heartbreakingly beautiful.” The actors are all equally impressive, but special shoutout to Isabelle Adjani, this movie’s heroine, who also starred in Possession, a wildly influential Polish horror film that still isn’t available for streaming in the US.

 

Subgenre: Vampires, gothic, you know the drill.

 

Story Type/Archetypes: See above.

 

Sense of Place: Without replicating the shadows of Murnau’s Nosferatu, Dracula’s castle nails that Expressionist sense of feeling like a nightmare.

 

Mood: With all the existential speeches and artistic lingering, this is very much an art piece, with a few moments of vivid terror.

 

Are there heroes?: Has there ever been such a useless Van Helsing? The original vampire hunter dismisses Lucy’s fears, so she has to sacrifice herself to bring down Dracula instead. She’s a bamf.

Who are the monsters (and why are they scary)?: Vampires are pestilence and rot, a decaying Europe, an embodied plague, and worst of all, they’re contagious.

 

And where’s the audience?: Like audiences in a theater, the artisiness provides a certain remove but also assigns an allegorical import, promising that the horrors might follow us out of the theater.

 

This movie will freak you out of you’re creeped out by…: Rats

 

Is it a metaphor for something?: Vampires are metaphorically dense figures, standing in for sickness, capitalist or feudal exploitation, even the Eucharist.

 

Is there a twist?: I was not expecting Jonathan to full-on become a vampire.

 

What kind of ending is it?: In his contagiousness, Dracula manages to be imposing even after death, let’s just say that.

 

The girlfriend’s rating (i.e. how much would this upset my girlfriend?): PG, for offscreen violence against squeaky friends

 

But how gay is it?: There’s always a degree of eroticism in a vampire’s appetite, and Dracula sure seems to enjoy chomping on Jonathan, so make of that what you will.

 

Goth Queens / Best Character?: As both the most useful and most stylish character in the film, the dark-haired emo Lucy steals the show.

 

Watch this if you enjoy: European arthouse fairytales, German expressionism, old-school vampire lore.

 

Girlfriend’s Corner: Beautiful, stylish, and profoundly disturbing, this is a movie I’m not going to forget any time soon. Herzog’s choice to portray Dracula as more pathetic than truly monstrous, as someone horrified and beaten down by his inability to escape his own desires, was incredible; it added shading to him without distracting from the fact that evil compelled by one’s nature is evil nonetheless. However, this movie would have benefitted greatly from making the vampires hotter and casting Kristen Stewart as a romantic lead opposite a particularly hot emo boy vampire.

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