Color, 1979, 107m.
Directed by Werner Herzog
Starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Roland Topor
BFI (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Shout! Factory (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Gaumont (Blu-ray & DVD) (France R0 HD/PAL), Arthaus (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
For some bizarre reason, horror remakes turned out to be a very good idea during the transition from the 1970s into the '80s. Various classics were reinterpreted with results including flat-out classics (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing) and fascinating but divisive experiments (Cat People), but perhaps the most unexpected was director Werner Herzog's interpretation of the F.W. Murnau silent classic Nosferatu. Shot back to back with Herzog's adaptation of the stage play Woyzeck, this film marked the second of five collaborations between the director and his most famous star, the volatile Klaus Kinski. Here the actor disappears into the role of a bald, rat-fanged, desolate member of the undead, a haunting twist on the famous original character embodied by Max Schreck.
The original film famously ran into legal trouble with author Bram Stoker's estate for appropriating the plot of Dracula, despite the fact that it changed the names of every character and completely rewrote the final act. Here the ruse is dispensed with entirely as we return to the familiar story of Jonathan Harker (Ganz), a realtor sent by the giggling Renfield (Topor) from his seaside port home with wife Lucy (Adjani) to tend to the mysterious Count Dracula (Kinski), who lives in a remote castle. Upon arriving, he finds his host to be a terrifying apparition who only appears at night and seems to have an affinity for transporting and storing coffins. Dracula becomes fixated on a photograph of Lucy and makes his way by ship to the village, bringing death and a horde of plague-infested rats with him.
Upon its release, Nosferatu the Vampyre confounded some critics were frustrated by Herzog’s attempts to duplicate certain shots from the original silent version; however, time quickly proved to be on the film's side as its reputation quickly grew. The photography is never less than stunning, not surprisingly, and the three leads are all excellent in roles that call for a stylized, dreamlike approach different from the usual demands of the period. Author of the source novel for The Tenant and a key figure in the avant garde Panic Movement, Topor is also an inspired choice as Renfield, and the score by Popol Vuh is also a major, deeply eerie asset. Some confusion arose upon its initial release due to the existence of two versions, a 107-minute German language print with English subtitles shown in some major cities and a wider release English language edition released by Fox, running nearly ten minutes shorter and marketed to compete with other high-profile vampire films that same year like John Badham's Dracula and Love at First Bite. The latter was actually shot in English with the same actors, and its relatively quick disappearance from theaters led to rumors that the stilted line delivery was drawing laughter from audiences.
Both versions later aired on cable TV stations in the 1980s, but for some reason the film didn't receive a North American home video release until two decades later courtesy of a DVD from Anchor Bay as part of their Werner Herzog line. That also marked the premiere appearance of the English version in its complete 107-minute version alongside the usual German one, and thankfully both have been kept together for comparison on most significant video releases ever since. The extras included a still gallery, English and Spanish trailers, a fascinating 13-minute vintage featurette about the location shooting in Delft (which subsequently had a nasty rat problem because of the film), and a typically insightful Herzog commentary moderated by Norman Hill, covering everything you could want to know about getting Kinski into character and finding the astonishing locations including that dazzling final shot.
Of course, a film as visually stunning as this would have to make it to Blu-ray sooner rather than later. It first appeared in HD in Europe in France (with no English-friendly options) and Germany (with the English version and the non-subbed German one), both from a solid master that had undergone overzealous digital scrubbing, particularly in night scenes with much of the original grain turned into waxy mush. (That same problematic master is evidently the one used for the American release, which has not been viewed yet but can be previewed here.)
Thankfully an unscrubbed version of what appears to be the same transfer appears on the BFI version in the UK, released as a steelbook edition in advance of its subsequent inclusion in their Herzog boxed set. The boost in detail is immediately appreciable, and it looks much closer to a finely textured 35mm presentation than the other discs. Both the German (with optional English subtitles) and the English-language editions are included in comparable quality, with the latter in mono and the former getting 5.1 DTS-HD and mono options. The surround mix is sparing but effective, especially when it comes to the music. The Herzog commentary, English trailer and a stills gallery are included, with the ornate packaging including a liner notes booklet with an essay by Laurie Johnson detailing the film's cultural inspirations and a 1979 review by Tom Milne from Sight & Sound. It's pretty much all the reason any film fan without a Region B player would need to spring for one.