Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dracula (1979) v. Nosferatu (1979)

1979 saw the release of three films featuring Count Dracula: the comedy "Love at First Bite," John Badham's "Dracula" with Frank Langella, and Klaus Kinski's "Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night" with Klaus Kinski. I'm going to compare and contrast the latter two, which are both remakes of older classics, the 1931 "Dracula" directed by Tod Browning, and the 1922 "Nosferatu," directed by F. W. Murnau. "Dracula" and "Nosferatu," or course, both share the same source material, Bram Stoker's "Dracula" novel, though "Nosferatu" was famously an unsanctioned adaptation with all the names changed. The two classics are very different, and have very different takes on its central character. But do the two remakes follow suit?

Let's start with John Badham's "Dracula," which begins with the arrival of Dracula (Frank Langella) in England. In this version, Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is the fiance of Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), and the daughter of Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance), who runs the local asylum. She's visited by her friend Mina (Jan Francis), the daughter of Professor Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier). Mina becomes the first victim of the Count, a dashing, attractive figure who no one suspects of wrongdoing until fairly late in the story. Harker never makes the trip to Transylvania in this version, and more emphasis is placed on Dracula's seduction of his victims. The film's tagline is "A Love Story." However, Dracula is ultimately dispatched by Harker and Van Helsing, in an action sequence worthy of one of Christopher Lee's toothier Hammer horror films.

The film plays if fairly straight, and the story works as distillation of all the most well known "Dracula" tropes. Yet, with Langella's hunkier Drac and the more romantic intimations, this is the "Dracula" adaptation that probably started shifting modern perceptions of the character from monster to tragic romantic anti-hero. Badham still keeps all the usual trappings of a "Dracula" story, though, and executes them very well. Carfax Abbey, Dracula's new residence, takes the place of the Transylvanian castle, full of cobwebs and candles. The art direction is ornate, but stately, and most of the film was shot on location in various parts of coastal England. It's refreshingly well grounded in the real world. However, the most memorable scene is a surreal "Wedding Night" sequence with Dracula and Lucy, which was created by Maurice Binder, best known for many James Bond opening title sequences. He uses optical effects, including colorful laser projections, to create a striking piece of 70s psychedelia.

Badham's "Dracula," though clearly a prestige production with a stellar cast and great respect for its source material, comes off as very much a film of its time. The passion is fairly chaste. The action and effects work are limited. The visuals are picturesque, but rarely cinematically ambitious. Like many of the mainstream action films of this era, there's a flatness to the lighting, and a staidness to the performances that undercuts its dramatic aims. Langella's Dracula is charming, but too reserved for my taste. Kate Nelligan's Lucy may have seemed unusually forward in 1979, but it's difficult to say how much control she has over herself or the relationship with Dracula from a modern standpoint. The only member of the cast who manages to evoke any real sympathy or horror is Olivier's Van Helsing, as he dispatches his vampirized daughter.

Werner Herzog, with his "Nosferatu," approached the material from an entirely different direction. His film is much more explicitly an homage to F.W. Murnau's 1922 "Nosferatu," which Herzog considered one of the greatest German films ever made. Here, Dracula is played by Klaus Kinski, and looks almost exactly like the unnaturally pale, monstrous figure with the pointy ears and long fingernails who starred in the original. Because copyright isues were no longer a concern, in Herzog's "Nosferatu," he can be called Dracula instead of Orlock. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), his wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), and Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) also make appearances, but much of the plot has been altered. The vast majority of the film is taken up with Harker's visit to Transylvania, with only the final third covering what happens when Dracula relocates, to Germany this time instead of England.

The most interesting narrative change was to place Lucy as the primary heroic character. She's far more active here than in any other version I've seen, a pure soul who spearheads the fight against Dracula, and makes the ultimate sacrifice. Van Helsing is only a minor character, the impotent voice of science and reason in a universe governed by spiritual and supernatural forces. Harker, though our POV character for the first half of the film, ultimately becomes incapacitated and compromised. It's Kinski and Adjani who dominate the story, their characters locked in a battle of wills, evil versus good. Their performances are so strong, they have become iconic. Kinki's Dracula is a twisted, inhuman creature, desiring of life and love, but all too aware that they are beyond his reach. He is horrific in every aspect, but still deeply pitiable. By contrast, Adjani has been styled as a righteous Madonna figure, radiant and virtuous.

Herzog was working with a tiny crew of only sixteen people, and it's amazing what they managed to accomplish. The sets and visuals are simple, but wonderfully evocative. Herzog recreated some of Murnau's shots, including images of grasping shadows looming large in the frame. There are almost no effects, but some good makeup and lighting create a great sense of the fantastic. There is also a heavy emphasis on the natural world, including landscapes and animals. Herzog also links Dracula's reign of terror to the Black Plague, and has several scenes that involve swarming masses of rats invading the town. Though there is little violence depicted onscreen, death is everywhere. There's this wonderful atmosphere of apocalyptic dread that permeates everything, with a little help from an excellent score.

Tod Browning's "Dracula" also gets a few nods in each film, or rather the Bela Lugosi performance of Count Dracula does. Both of the 1979 adaptations have their own takes on the "Children of the night" and "I never drink wine" lines. It's indicative of these "Dracula" films having roots in both of those early portrayals, as starkly different as they are. And you can definitely see the influence of Badham's and Herzog's films on later adaptations, including Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 "Dracula" and beyond.

But that's a post for another day.

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