Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht Review

Everyone knows the story behind F. W. Murnau's 1922 silent masterpiece Nosferatu. The director, refusing to allow the fact that the Bram Stoker estate had refused him permission to film a Dracula adaptation, went ahead anyway, simply changing the illustrious count's name to Nosferatu. What followed was a cinematic masterpiece, and certainly one of the scariest films of all time. The making of that film is tackled with mixed results in Shadow Of The Vampire. However, years later in 1979, German director Werner Herzog decided that rather than remake the original Dracula novel, he would in fact focus more on remaking Murnau's Nosferatu. Despite the critical eyebrows being raised at the time, Herzog's version has stood the test of time to become a classic vampire story remodelling.

The plots of Dracula rehashes are usually not important, considering there are so many versions and that they usually follow the same linear path-line. Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht isn't overtly different from the crowd, and is faithful to both Murnau's Nosferatu and indeed Stoker's original novel. In this case, the Count is called Dracula again, even if the London elements have been transplanted to central Europe. Even so, the actual plot of Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht tells of Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) an estate agent, who is ordered by his employer Renfield (Roland Topor) to Transylvania to finalise a sale on a property to the mysterious Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski). Harker leaves his beloved wife behind, the virginal sultriness that is Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) and travels to the Count's castle. During his journey, Harker stops off at a local inn, and causes inadvertent panic when he informs the inhabitants that he is visiting Count Dracula. They do not persist in warning him off the Count, and Harker is unnerved even more when every carriage driver refuses to take him to the castle. Eventually, Harker arrives at the castle on foot, where he is taken/hypnotised by the freakish-looking Dracula and made a brain-dead slave of the vampire. Hiding himself amongst an abundance of coffins, Dracula stows away on board a ship bound for Harker's town, and eventually all of the crew die mysteriously. The ship reaches the port of Harker's town, and the coffins are opened, thus releasing thousands of plague-riddled rats to the town, a disease that starts to kill off the townsfolk. Harker manages to find his way back home, but has no recollection of who he is or who his loved ones are. This disturbs Lucy, who through a dream-like connection with the vampire is offered a chance to have her husband restored to his usual self, providing she gives herself to the Count, but can she resist the evil vampire's bite?

Director Herzog filmed two version of the film, a German language version and an English language version. The difference between the two do not rest solely on the issue of dubbing, as Herzog filmed each scene twice, with the actors speaking English in one version of the scene and German in the other. The German language version has since become the definitive version, due to the English version (titled Nosferatu The Vampire) being worse in the acting department (due to the lack of English/American stars) and also because of its running time being cut by ten minutes in comparison. Ironically, the issue of language doesn't matter, as the film relies on heavy visual impact as opposed to dialogue to drive its narrative. Either way, both versions are included on separate discs in this Anchor Bay Region 2 release, even if the English version is quite categorically redundant.

Stylistically, you could argue that Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is the greatest vampire adaptation in cinema. The visuals are stark yet bleak, and even though they often lack beauty, you have to give credit to Herzog's camera eye that he can push each individual shot to its visual limitations. Herzog deliberately gives each sequence room to linger in the audience's conscience, and even though fairly little action occurs throughout the film, it certainly contains a haunting essence. This is despite the fact that the film is predominantly fuelled with the colour white, as opposed to the dark and gothic colours that horror directors usually pander to. Klaus Kinski is a left-field choice for Dracula, but he pulls off the performance admirably, and it is no wonder that Herzog has chosen him as his leading man for five films in total. Kinski portrays Dracula as a man driven by compulsion; pure menace and yet pure fragility, and this approach is considerably refreshing when watching a Dracula rehash. The vamp-like Isabelle Adjani is equally impressive as Lucy opposite Kinski despite her smaller portion of screen time. Adjani has a dominant look of almost inner-mayhem, sparked by the continued presence of Dracula in her thoughts. Bruno Ganz is only just acceptable as Harker and seems miscast, although it's possible that the Harker character is always the most thankless role, since he is ultimately immaterial in the battle of sexual control between Dracula and Harker's wife.

The scoring of the film by Herzog, with an overt use of classical pieces including such composers as Wagner, is different in that the scenes of horror are mostly scoreless, whilst lead-up scenes are rousing due to an overbearing musical scoring. This is very effective, and Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht works best as a horror in utter silence, with drawn out pain and anguish.

The Region 1 version wasn't anamorphic, and even though the Region 2 version betters it on that count, the transfer still leaves much to be desired and is a missed-opportunity. In many of the soft-focus scenes, the picture looks splendid. However, most of the time, pixelation is over-bearing if you have grown a trained eye in this department. It's the type of transfer that would fool most moviegoers, but not the DVD enthusiasts. As soon as a camera zooms out or pans, the details shimmer and numerous artefacts can be witnessed. This is a considerable shame, as the film is primarily visual and desperately needs a good visual authoring.

Given a 5.1 remix and an original 2.0 mix, the 5.1 mix of the film lacks major surround elements and is actually 4.1. Dialogue is mono and the classical music pieces and occasional effects fill the rear channels on seldom occasions. The English version is 2.0 mono and lacks the audio impact that the German version contains, despite the latter's lack of need for a surround mix.


Menu: A good moving menu consisting of moody clips from the film. The menu is too long, despite good presence of the film's atmospheric classical music score.

Audio Commentary With Werner Herzog and Norman Hill: On the German language version, there is an audio commentary featuring director Werner Herzog being interviewed by Norman Hill. The commentary is screen-specific, and very interesting for fans of Herzog, who describes the reasons why he approached the tale of Dracula in the way he chose to. There are relatively few pauses in the track, and even if Herzog is dry-tongued he still maintains an interesting note. Hill asks some good questions, such as the urban myths surrounding the use of the rats in the film, and Herzog answers honestly to all of the questions fired at him. He even reveals the fact that the horrific-looking mummies at the beginning of the film are in fact from Mexico and real.

Behind The Scenes Featurette: A thirteen minute featurette, shot at the time of the film's production, featuring interviews with the key cast and crew and showing clips of Kinski's Dracula makeup being applied. It’s interesting to watch, as Herzog is very talkative towards camera. What is so annoying however, is the fact that although the featurette is shot at 1.85:1, it has obviously been taken from a non-anamorphic master, and yet is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, which presents a foolish letterbox-in-a-letterbox effect. Anchor Bay did the same stupid mistake on their version of The Stepford Wives.

Trailers: Three trailers are included, and these are two original US trailers that heighten the suspect and downplay on the foreign dialogue, and a Spanish trailer that consists mostly of still images, and is quite intriguing.

Arguably one of the finest Dracula adaptations and certainly one of the most stylish is given a mediocre transfer with moderate sound quality. The extras are sparse and acceptable, although it's nice to see that Anchor Bay have also provided the English language version of the film. Don't be tempted by it, however, as the German Language version is the one worth seeing, thus rendering the English version an unnecessary extra. Even so, it looks unlikely that Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht will be given a better release, so fans should opt for this Anchor Bay release.

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