When you think of Dracula, chances are the first image that springs to mind is Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, or perhaps Gary Oldman, but there was a Dracula that graced the silver screen long before any of those great actors. Although in an unsuccessful attempt to get around Bram Stoker's widow, he went by a different name, Count Orlock, in F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent film, Nosferatu. Mrs. Stoker successfully sued Murnau, and all copies of his film were ordered destroyed, but luckily some remained and were later restored. By 1979, Stoker's copyright had entered the public domain, freeing director Werner Herzog to film his 1979 remake, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, or Nosferatu the Vampyre.
Most audiences by now are familiar with the general story of Dracula, but in this film, the story does take some liberties, much like its predecessor.
Jonathan Harker is sent by his employer Mr. Renfield to Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula to discuss terms for the Count's purchase of property in Wismar, Germany. During his journey, Harker is hindered by uncooperative locals in the Carpathian mountain region, but after four weeks, he reaches Castle Dracula. After signing the papers, the Count imprisons and feeds on Harker, leaving him behind as he departs by ship for Wismar by way of the Caspian Sea. Harker escapes and falls ill, but is determined to intercept the Count and his boxes of earth. During the sea voyage, Dracula kills all the ship's crew, and the captain, lashes himself to the helm before he too succumbs to death. The ship drifts into Wismar, where it is discovered abandoned save for the captain's bloodless corpse and countless rats. Jonathan arrives in Wismar, but his illness has progressed and he has no memory of Lucy or the ordeal he has been through. The people of Wismar soon fall to the Black Plague, brought by the rats on Dracula's ship. Lucy enlists the aid of Dr. Van Helsing, but he is unable to treat Jonathan. Lucy does her own research and confronts Dracula alone.
Klaus Kinski is quite the imposing figure in the role of Count Dracula. However, his vocal performance in English leaves much to be desired, and I just didn't find him frightening. Creepy, yes, but not frightening. There are two versions of the film, in English and German, with both versions filmed with the same actors. I saw the German version many years ago, and I remember Kinski's performance being far superior in that version. So if you don't mind subtitles, I highly recommend tracking down the German version.
Isabelle Adjani plays Lucy Harker in the film. I found her performance to be laughably over the top, and this time it can't be blamed on the English translation. Lucy's eyes are always wide and searching. She always appears to be deathly terrified, except when she finally comes face to face with Dracula. Instead of being frightened, she seems bored and distracted, her eyes always glancing to the side and her voice distant as she casually shrugs off the ghoulish Count's advances.
The film's chilling opening sequence came courtesy of the Mummies of Guanajuato, victims of a cholera outbreak in Mexico in 1833. Director Werner Herzog had the mummies removed from their display cases and stood against the wall to film them. At first I thought it was just a clever special effect, but certain details just seemed too real. I searched online and learned that, yes, those are indeed real mummies in the film. William Stout, production designer for The Return of the Living Dead (which I also reviewed earlier this week) also drew a great deal of inspiration from the Mummies of Guanajuato while designing the zombies for that film.
So now for the verdict. Despite the flaws in the English version, the film is gorgeous. I particularly love Jonathan Harker's journey through the Carpathians on his way to Castle Dracula. If you can track down the German-language version of the film, I would highly recommend watching it. But either way, the film is a masterpiece and a fitting tribute to Murnau's original film. Check it out.