THE UNSEEN HORROR moves into our second remake today, as we look at a horror classic. Many see Universal Studios’ horror films as the earliest examples of popular horror cinema. However, there were earlier efforts. Thomas Edison filmed a short version of FRANKENSTEIN in 1910. That was twenty-one years before Boris Karloff put bolts in his neck. Dracula received an early filming as well, with the 1922 German silent film NOSFERATU.

Due to copyrights at the time, the filmmakers couldn’t use the names from DRACULA. Even so, the film is considered hugely influential in Germany and the rest of the world. In 1979, German director Werner Herzog directed a modern remake, using the now-public-domain names from DRACULA. Let’s open up the coffin, and take a closer look at NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE.

The Plot

Much like THE BLOB (1988), NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE takes much from its predecessor. Jonathan Harker is commissioned to deliver real estate papers to Count Dracula in Transylvania. The vampiric Dracula disturbs Harker. His wife Lucy dreams her husband is in danger. Dracula locks Harker in the castle and sails with a ship of coffins to Harker’s town. Rats infest the town, and the plague spreads quickly. Harker escapes the castle but is injured. He returns to his home with amnesia. However, Lucy has read his journals and knows the true nature of the evil in her town.

A Different Kind Of Fear

The original NOSFERATU was constrained by its time. It was a bloodless vampire story that built on atmosphere and the creepy makeup of Max Schreck as Count Orlock.

Nosferatu
Courtesy of NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE.

NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE follows the same principles. Despite the modern sensibility, this film works by creating a creepy atmosphere. Slow moving shots, dark backdrops, and dramatic build cause the scares in this film. This might make the film seem tame for those used to blood and gore, but it creates a wonderfully unsettling feel. Like Darabont and Russell, Herzog is extremely respectful of the original film (even calling it Germany’s greatest film in interviews). Therefore, he shows respect for the elements that made the original scary. He even goes as far as recreating certain shots. Even the makeup for actor Klaus Klinski faithfully recreates Shreck’s look.

NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE.
Courtesy of NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE.

All of this attention to detail is effectively modernizing. The creepy feel helps the film overcome its lack of blood by making old methods effective in modern times.

Children of The Night

The atmosphere wouldn’t work as well without good performances though. The actors involved had a unique challenge. Herzog filmed in both German and English, allowing for two versions of the film (likely for international audiences). This meant the actors basically had to perform scenes twice. However, they rose to the occasion, allowing both versions to stand on their own (and without the horrendous dubbing found in movies like GODZILLA).

The performances are a major factor in NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE being more than a remake. The two major players here are Dracula and Lucy (name-swapped with the role of Mina in the original story). Dracula allows the strangeness of his appearance to creep into his lines. Much of his dialogue is off-putting and makes you feel uncomfortable around him. However, there is also a sense of sadness to him. Dracula speaks more than once about being alone, and tired of his existence. He even begs Lucy to be with him at one point. This is reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s DRACULA, which also touched on the weariness of being an immortal.

The Pure Heart

Lucy’s role is no less impactful. NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE uses Harker more as a device to start the story. Lucy is the one taking a more active role. She dreams about the danger of Dracula early on. Then, when the city begins to suffer, she reads Harker’s journals and learns of Dracula. She even has a brief encounter with him, where she rejects his offers. However, the experience gives her a weapon.

Lucy learns she can trap Dracula until dawn, but at the cost of her own life. Lucy’s active role and eventual sacrifice are rare for a horror heroine of the era. She is presented as pure, but not as a trophy for Dracula or Harker. Instead, she uses her knowledge and intelligence to ensnare Dracula and end him, at the cost of her own life. It’s much more than women in most Dracula adaptions get, and NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE is stronger for it.

Feel the Bite of NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE

NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE might not be the most terrifying film for modern audiences. However, it creates an unsettling atmosphere, with strong acting to anchor it. It has a unique hero and a villain that evokes a degree of sympathy as well as revulsion. It’s arguably artistic horror, that leaves more of an impact then blood and guts can. So if you want a different film, put in NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE. And come back next time, when we move from successful remakes to surprisingly good sequels…

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