Nosferatu, the Vampyre (2 Disc)
The original Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, as well as Hitchcock's Psycho, are known as two of classical pioneers of the horror genre. In 1998, when Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho was released, there was controversial uproar. People balked at the idea of a colorized, shot-for-shot remake of such an important film, arguing that Hitchcock's material was timeless and needless of any type of re-imaging. Although not as pronounced, that was much the same climate in 1979 for German visionary Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, The Vampyre.
Herzog argued that Shakespearean plays like Hamlet have been redone countless times, but all of them have differences that set them apart, much like his update of his Dracula tale compared to the ones before it. Some critics were indifferent, while others like Roger Ebert included it on their Top 10 lists. Now after 23 years, the controversy has settled, so let's take a trip to Transylvania and see how the film and Anchor Bay's new re-release holds up.
Horribly disfigured mummies. A flying bat. The Vampyre. Beginning with shots of the mummies and the bat, the film sets up its central character, Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski). Hunched over with a pale complexion and a bat-like appearance, Kinski's Dracula is a battered and empty creature. An ageless being, he has lived without love for centuries, confined to his medieval mansion and restricted to roam only in the dark hours. In order to stay alive he must feast on the lives of others, and hence decides to move to an urban locale.
Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), a real estate agent, and his wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) live happily together. But upon request from the Count, Jonathan is asked to help him find a new dwelling, so he leaves his wife to aid the count in Transylvania. Both his wife and the locals he meets during his journey inform him of the numerous deaths and ghost sightings experienced at Dracula's mansion, and that if he goes, he too will face great danger. Jonathan, ignoring the warnings, finally reaches the Count's home, and is greeted by the stark individual. He is offered a late supper, and while eating, he cuts his finger with a knife, causing a rejuvenated Dracula to leap from his seat and suck the blood from his finger. It is now apparent, that like the people before him, Jonathan will fall victim to Dracula's bite.
Admiring the neck of Lucy in one of Jonathan's pictures, Dracula abandons Jonathan and heads to his hometown, hidden in a boat with rats, in order to seek out his lust for Lucy. Upon arriving, the townspeople begin dying, in what many feel is a plague from the legion of rats which were aboard the ship. This destroys the city, causing all laws and civility to fall wayward of the night's darkness. Lucy knows however, that it is Dracula that is causing the deaths, and vows to end his destructive reign once and for all.
Nosferatu's story is insignificant. Dracula's story has been told time and time again through various artistic mediums, and is about as well known as the national anthem. Everyone knows the words, it is how it is said that makes all the difference. Werner Herzog has taken what has become a cliché story, and injected it with consummate visual expression. The vast locals and eerie set pieces speak more than the words uttered onscreen, and symbolize the central narrative. This film is a character study of an outcast, a man as empty inside as the scenic locations that surround him. From gothic mansions to overcast mountains, the visuals establish the desolate tone of the film. A picture is worth a thousand words, and Herzog's visuals alone are able to express Dracula's strained emotions with an unparalleled depth.
Murnau's original Nosferatu was without dialogue, with only an eerie organ score to carry the narrative. Although filmed in both German and English, Herzog's Nosferatu, The Vampyre is extremely similar in presentation to Murnau's classic. The language is secondary to the visuals and the score, and the film could easily be just as effective without the dialogue. Both the images and the orchestral soundtrack exhibit an emotional arc which is at times beautiful and at others haunting. The actors in this film are merely props contributing to Herzog's lyrical vision.
While most of the characters appear flat and emotionless, Klaus Kinski's portrayal of Dracula remains the sole exception. Like the films visuals, Kinski's expressions are most profound when they are not spoken. Crouching over the bed of his victims, the suppressed emotion behind Kinski's blackened, hollowed eyes is articulated with a haunting conviction. Kinski's Dracula is a battered and lonely soul, more so even than Schreck's interpretation, and although he is a murderous being, Kinski is able to evoke a tragic pity from the audience. At a time when the character of Count Dracula had sunken to cheap caricatures of Lugosi's and Lee's past portrayals, Kinski was able to create a Dracula of his own, and his performance remains today perhaps the best and most intriguing interpretation of the forlorn creature ever captured on film.
Nosferatu, The Vampyre consists of long takes of exposition, and takes its time telling the narrative. Werner Herzog, creating a comparable homage to Murnau's original silent film, relies on foreboding visuals like Dracula's lurking presence on an abandoned boat, or a sequence of fanatical townspeople celebrating their final hours of life amidst rats and sheep. Like a poem, his images radiate a lyrical symbolism, a collection of metaphors put in place to sustain its theme. This is a film about loneliness, about a man turned beast-like and gaunt out of unexpressed love. Dracula is a sad and tortured romantic, and his condition is only fully revealed with the film's final subtle shot.
Anchor Bay originally released this film on DVD back in early 1999, and the transfer for both the German and English versions was mediocre at best. They were full of grain, contained weak color definition and lacked anamorphic enhancement. Now, presented in 1.85:1 widescreen enhanced for 16x9 television sets, these new transfers are unfortunately similar in most respects to AB's previous release. The overall look of both the German and English transfers appears washed out and grainy, with the German release even more pronounced. There are times when hair is openly visible on the print (during the beach scene on the lower right corner in particular) as well as other slight blemishes. Shadow definition is weak, and the blacks are poorly defined, looking often at times as gray. The English transfer has better color definition than the German transfer, but otherwise they are basically equal. One must keep in mind that this was a low budget 1970's film, so some flaws most likely lie within the print itself.
The print used for both the new and old releases appears to be the same, but there are a few differences in the visual qualities of both. The older transfer is noticeably sharper than the one on this disc, with images from all depth planes appearing clearer. The newer print however, boasts stronger colors and better flesh tone saturation. Grass appears much more vibrant on the newer release, and faces seem much more lifelike. The newer print also benefits from increased resolution thanks to the anamorphic enhancement. Since the original release was crammed onto a single disc, there is significant compression issues that make themselves apparent in the darker scenes, as pixelated boxes dance like phantoms in the night. So while the old release may seem sharper, its duller colors and artifacting make the new release a winner.
Both the original release and this DVD present Nosferatu in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0 for the German language film, and Dolby Digital Mono for the English version. Truth be told, all three tracks on both versions sound fairly flat and there was little difference to be heard. For the German film, part of the soundtrack and sound effects have been pushed into the surrounds, but the sound is so subdued that it is almost unnoticeable. There is no directional movement or discrete sound effects, and the overall sound lacks range. The English version obviously sounds weaker and much less engulfing. There are also cases in all the tracks where the score momentarily drowns out the dialogue.
Despite these reservations though, they are decent tracks, with mostly clear sounding dialogue and effects, without any hissing or popping to be heard. For a film of such age it sounds good, and either disc will provide the best audio transfer the film has ever received.
Although this is a new two-disc set, the supplements on this release are almost identical to those included on the initial DVD release. All of the supplements on both releases are on the German version, with the exception of a duplicate trailer on the English version. The original release was a dual-sided disc with the English version on one side, and the German on the other. This new release has the German put on one single sided disc, while the English has been put onto another disc.
The most notable supplement for both discs is the inclusion of the English language version of the film. Shot simultaneously with the German release, 20th Century Fox asked Werner Herzog to shoot an English version in order to generate a greater appeal to western audiences. Since dialogue is a minimal part of this movie, the differences in the two versions of the film are not all that important. What is important however, is that the actors speaking in English did not know the language, and thus their expressions appear more muted and somewhat awkward in the English version. To add to that, their English was later dubbed, so the overall effectiveness of the speech is lost in the translation. So although an interesting inclusion, the German version with English subtitles is undoubtedly the clear way to go.
Also included is a feature length screen-specific audio commentary with director Werner Herzog and moderator Norman Hill. Although a born and raised German, Herzog is a fairly good English speaker, and this is a nicely entertaining track. Herzog sheds light on his inspirations for some shots, his opinions of other Dracula films, his disagreements with 20th Century Fox, narrative themes he wished to make apparent, and other interesting tidbits of information. Hill does a good job of baiting Herzog to talk about more focused questions, and the two work well together.
Three trailers are included, two of which being for the US release, while the other is the Spanish Trailer. These are great trailers, with a pulsing heartbeat and grave narration composing all three.
Next up is a 13-minute making-of featurette shot in a widescreen ratio during the film's production. The featurette entails Herzog talking about his relationship with Klaus Kinski, what the film means to him, how he shoots his films, and his attempt at connecting the film to early German cinema, among other things. It shows some interesting behind-the-scenes footage and contains a very creepy score, and is actually at times unsettling. It serves as an interesting exposé of the time the film was made in, as well as reveal some interesting production footage and opinions.
Added to the new DVD is an anamorphic enhancement to the featurette, and it looks considerably better than the previous release. The flesh tones look much more realistic and the overall print looks cleaner. Below is a comparison of the image quality of the featurette on the two DVD releases.
Also new to this release are some interesting and comprehensive Talent Bios for both Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog. They reveal a great deal about their lives, and it is recommended that they be viewed prior to the film in order to get a greater historical knowledge of the people involved. Lastly, Anchor Bay has created some nice new animated menus for this release, and they are visually appealing and set the tone of the film perfectly. Although there are not many differences between the two releases in terms of content, the presentation on the newer disc is definitely an improvement. Both discs though, include some great supplements and either disc is recommended highly.
Nosferatu, The Vampyre is an exceptional film, full with lyrical visual imagery and a sprawling orchestral score. Klaus Kinski's performance as the miserable Count Dracula is full of raw emotion and arguably Dracula's best onscreen characterization. Nosferatu, The Vampyre is more than just a remake of a classic film, it is a beautiful re-imaging.
Anchor Bay's new two-disc DVD improves on the previous release with an anamorphic film and featurette transfer, as well as new menus and talent bios. Both releases contain decent audio tracks and great supplemental material. If you have yet to purchase this film, then I highly recommend you buy Anchor Bay's new DVD. But for those who own the older release, there isn't much use in upgrading unless you have a 16x9 television set.
Movie - A
Image Quality - B+
Sound - B-
Supplements - A-
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