On NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT

A look at German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s haunting 1979 vampire film

Immortality. We all want it. The chance to defy that black specter of death that equalizes us. But to live forever, drifting through time like a ghost; residue of a memory, unattached to anything, anyplace…anyone. Hiding in shadows until the earth stops spinning. The crushing loneliness of it…would it really be worth it?

That’s the central driving thematic force behind director Werner Herzog’s dark, dreamy, full color remake of the immortal 1922 German expressionist classic Nosferatu. A film that, although deeply indebted (sometimes almost scene for scene) to the iconic, silent original, still manages to evolve beyond its experimental horror roots, taking its essence from F.W. Murnau (like a vampire would, in fact), assimilating that blueprint and then injecting liberal amounts of lyricism and a driving force of deep, bittersweet melancholy. The resulting work is among the inimitable Herzog’s most powerful and important films.

After a string of incredibly successful art house favorites throughout the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Herzog, who alongside trailblazing filmmakers Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, was a major figure in the German new wave movement, turned his gaze to the film he correctly acknowledged as the single most important German movie of all time. Indeed, the director had set his sights on remaking Murnau’s shuddery unauthorized Dracula adaptation, shooting both German and English language versions and applying his own unique cinematic aesthetic to the oft filmed tale of the bloodsucking undead.

Unfortunately, at the same time Universal was also prepping the John Badham / Frank Langella take on the Hamilton Deane stage version of Dracula and MGM were launching the post-disco era George Hamilton spoof Love at First Bite, both easily accessible to mass-audience sensibilities and hugely popular. Herzog’s languid, meditative anti-horror film was completely at odds with both the times and stateside sensibilities and his film, Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (or Nosferatu:The Vampyre as it was known in the US and UK), although critically praised by many, got lost in the sanguinary shuffle, deemed by some as pretentious and thought by some critics to be a pointless attempt to revisit a picture that was already perfect as is.

Of course, that simply is not the case and time has, like it often does with most enduring masterworks of dark cinema, proved any naysayers wrong. Herzog’s epic tale of disease, death, love, loss and isolation is absolutely one of the most evocative and emotional vampire film ever committed to celluloid.

To fully appreciate the one of a kind wonder of Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht, one must first understand the work of its creator. Born and raised in a remote German mountain village, one completely untouched by technology, young Werner would grow up in an environment two shades shy of the Stone Age, not making his first phone call until he was 14 and not seeing his first film until he was 17. But Herzog had something far better than modern distractions to inspire him. He was surrounded by the beauty of the natural world; of mountainous terrain, unforgiving nights and swooning days; of green grass, gentle winds and free flowing rivers. Herzog would grow up understanding nature, respecting it and most importantly, he was deeply humbled by it. He understood infinitely that mother earth was an unforgiving mistress; a bitch goddess that could kiss as easily as kill and only a fool would dare attempt to gain the upper hand against her.

So when life propelled him towards becoming what he would become, Herzog began making movies that told tales of dangerous eccentrics, heroes and madmen whose sometimes valiant, often vain, efforts to conquer nature result in their ruin. Thing is, Herzog would often choose to film these pictures in the very bowels of the badlands and wild worlds that his scripts painted as treacherous, using locals and natives as extras and often personally teetering on the very destruction he sought to chart.

His front-of-lens collaborator for 5 astounding films, the probably legitimately insane performance artist Klaus Kinski, he of the blond hair, widely spaced eyes and twitchy lips, would in essence become the extension of Herzog; his dark side, the embodiment of his vice and his irrational desire to perhaps subconsciously cause his own destruction. The two became close friends but also, famously, mortal on-set enemies, once even plotting to murder each other behind the other’s back (check out the stirring Herzog documentaries Burden of Dreams and My Best Fiend if you don’t believe me). The fact that Herzog would eventually cast his beloved nemesis as the Lord of the parasites, speaks volumes about their unique and creatively volatile relationship.

Now, as every horror historian knows (but we’ll recap here for those who don’t), back when Murnau decided to adapt Stoker for the screen, he ran into a huge problem: Stoker’s widow was very much alive and in possession of both her faculties and the rights to her hubby’s estate. And she wanted cash. A lot more cash than Murnau was planning to part with. So Murnau, ever the arrogant brat, got the idea to tweak names and places in the story, changing Stoker’s suave Transylvanian Count into a bald, bone- white, taloned freak named “Orlock”, and went ahead as planned, calling his picture Nosferatu instead. As only a moron would miss the narrative disguise, the widow Stoker sued the director within an inch of his life, resulting in the courts ordering all prints of the picture to be destroyed. But they weren’t and years later some of them surfaced, the film was hailed a lost classic and the rest is horror lore.

When it came time for Herzog to make his own tribute to this remarkable picture, the Dracula property had lapsed into the public domain, meaning he could call his villain Dracula and change the names and places back to their rightful literary origin. His plot, however, follows the original film’s setup verbatim: Jonathan Harker (here played by notable German actor Bruno Ganz, perhaps best known now as Hitler in the film Downfall) lives in quiet bliss in Virna with his porcelain skinned wife Lucy (played by the ravishing French actress Isabelle Adjani). One day, Harker’s giggling, half-mad boss Renfield (brilliantly played by author Roland Topor, the same Roland Topor who wrote the novel on which Polanski’s The Tenant was based) sends him on an expedition to Transylvania to sell property to one Count Dracula (Kinski), a long trip he promises will cost the young go-getter plenty of sweat…and blood.

Harker leaves his beloved Lucy and begins his serpentine journey to Castle Dracula where, after enduring weeks of endless horror, he discovers his host is in fact a night-crawling, neck-nipping monster. As Dracula packs up his black coffins and heads to Harker’s hometown, specifically to sample the wares of his wife, a fever-ridden Harker must escape his tower prison and beat the rat-bringing, plague- carrying vampire to the punch before it’s too late.

There’s nothing in that synopsis that you haven’t read or seen before, but remember, this is Dracula retold by a man who tells tales a bit differently than most. This is Werner Herzog’s Dracula, shot on staggeringly eye filling locations in the Netherlands, filled with impossible beauty, eccentric characters and most importantly an almost overwhelming sadness. The film is, as are all Herzog pictures, free of artifice and special effect save for Kinski’s shocking make up design, cribbed wholesale from the original fiend played by actor Max Shreck. Indeed the first time we see Kinski, his bald, pointy-eared, rat-toothed visage is shocking; he’s a creature completely at odds with the natural beauty around him. This Dracula, for all his hideous, otherworldly, appearance, is simply another one of the director’s dangerous outsiders, a thing who has been blessed and cursed with the secret of eternal life and yet forced to live as an outcast, skulking in rotting tombs, in a twilight shadow world, free of any sort of comfort…or love.

And this vampire needs love, or rather needs to be loved.

And what of Kinski? Does this lunatic who so viscerally brought the monkey-tossing, delusional Don Lope de Aguirre and the megalomaniacal Fitzcaraldo to screeching life, manage to successfully essay a miserable, attention-starved vampire fiend who’s bloodlust is only matched by his despair? Fucking right, he does. Whether glowing in the moonlight, hungrily eyeing a dining Harker or creeping up on the beautiful Lucy, Kinski manages to create a monster that is as pathetic as he is terrifying, who wants to re-join the human race but whose disdain for it keeps him terminally distanced from everything.
Witness the climactic scene where a broken-hearted Lucy finally invites Dracula to drain her, hoping to drown him in daylight and save her husband’s soul. In the original, Max Shreck’s Count Orlock simply drinks her dry but here, with Kinski in the role, he vainly attempts to engage in ‘normal’ lovemaking, clumsily pulling up Lucy’s dress, clutching her bosom, sniffing her like a suspicious dog, before she lets him off the hook and just pulls him to her throat. It’s an erotic (though free of nudity or traditional erotica tropes), tragic and macabre sequence and there has never been anything like it onscreen before or since.

There’s one paralyzing section in Herzog’s Nosferatu that long ago made it one of my favorite films. As the rat plague brought by Dracula ravishes Virna, killing men, women and children without mercy, Lucy wanders the streets trying to convince the few survivors of the undead menace in their midst. The haunting sounds of Herzog’s regular composer, the late Florian Fricke (aka progressive rock outfit Popol Vuh) bleeds into an otherworldly Georgian Choir, their mournful sound drifting across a tableaux of an inevitable death. Pigs shit in the street, men try to mate with sheep, children dance with fiddlers, couples make love on the cobblestones and Lucy, dressed in white, raven hair pulled tight in a bun, almond eyes open wide weaves within it all. A table in the middle of the madness sees handsomely attired men and women dining and drinking, inviting Lucy to sit with them. “We all have the plague” a woman says matter-of-factly as rats dart in and out from between her legs, “and we want to enjoy every last minute we have left.”

A frame later and the people are gone. Their feast now simply a table full of hordes of diseased rats. Chilling and beautiful stuff…. watch it below…

Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht might just be Werner Herzog’s ultimate masterpiece. A moving, haunting portrait of the mercilessness and inevitability of death but also a stark statement about how sometimes a brief life filled with warmth, love, beauty and belonging is better than an endless one filled with nothing but want. From the gorgeous cinematography, heart breaking performances, eerie, unforgettable music and even the quintessentially Herzogian dark humor, this is one of the few motion pictures that benefits from several serious viewings, preferably alone, without a break of any kind. To say it pales beside the original is to miss the point…

Originally published at www.comingsoon.net

On HELENA

A 70’s Europorno with a dark, psychological edge

People speak of the golden age of hardcore pornography spurting from the 1970s like they were hallowed, horny works of reflexive art. This is due in most part to nostalgia (what isn’t) when comparing these classics to the contemporary gynecological jack-hammering iPhone porn that now stink up every corner of the internet. And I mean, sure, Deep Throat and Cafe Flesh might as well be Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Alphaville by comparison to any of the antics on PornHub, but that doesn’t mean these pictures were the bold works of hormonal vision we deify them as today.

I think there’s also the factor that 70’s porn was shot on real deal 35mm film and more often than not were more couple-inclusive than run-of-the-mill stag films and most had plots and were publicly exhibited often in hard-top theaters with big splashy premieres and mainstream media coverage. But look closely and all you’ll see are standard-issue exploitation films, most of them crass and goofball comedies jazzed up with blowjobs and genital pumping. Even the aforementioned, highly regarded Cafe Flesh just swipes a science fiction hook to hang its graphic coupling on.

All that said, if you steer away from America during the free-love decade and look to Europe, you’ll often find porn that DOES function as art. You’ll find movies not made by gangsters and 42nd street hustlers but rather skilled craftsmen and realized by decent actors with a much more avant garde, occasionally even thrillingly dangerous, leaning. Case in point, director Alain Nauroy’s perverse and hypnotic 1975 fuck film Helena (aka La Villa), a lush and, eventually, rather disturbing movie that is not only a great porno (proving that yes Vagina, er, Virginia, there ARE such things as great pornos!) but a very, very good film in and of itself: dark and hot with a gritty, psychological edge.

Gorgeous French legend Valerie Boisgel (Max Peca’s Young Cassanova) stars as the tit-ular heroine, a woman who ventures into the French countryside to hook up with Roy, a wealthy socialite she had previously met and made love to. Instead she finds another skeezy fellow named Frank staying at the villa, who informs her that Roy is busy having endless sex with another woman by the pool. Helena is justifiably mortified but sticks around and waits (“He’s about to cum” Frank smirks at one point), engaging in witty, sharp-tongued banter with the cavalier Frank while Nauroy keeps cutting to Roy working on his other lover.

Eventually, Helena has sex with Frank ( a hot scene up against a wall, standing up) and then Roy (while Roy’s other lover masturbates with a huge dildo and watches) and all this elegant, urgent and well-shot pounding and climaxing happens outdoors, with the beautiful countryside in the background, the sun shining, the pool shimmering and composer Alain Goraguer’s psychedelic fuzz-rock groove snaking around on the soundtrack.

But suddenly, this lazy and lovely shagfest is obliterated when a gang of thugs overtake the villa and begin tormenting the lovers, first trying to bury a copulating couple alive and then raping Helena. What starts as a stylish and truly sexy porn, soon becomes a harrowing, often deeply upsetting, horror movie, with shades of Last House on the Left and the later Funny Games. All this insanity is peppered with more sex until the truly daft climax that sees Helena literally “reborn”. Hard to explain, hard to forget.

And speaking of hard, let’s talk about dicks in 70’s porn. More often than not, the penises were both obscenely hairy and, well, flaccid. Not here. In Helena, it actually looks like the actors were enjoying the experience and the men have legitimate, well manicured erections, which may seem an odd comment, but it helps sell the fantasy as opposed to other films where it looks like dudes are just rubbing their sticky sausages into spots, like wet hairy marshmallows stuffed into glistening piggy banks.

Bottom line is that Helena (recently unearthed and released by Synapse’s Impulse Pictures line on DVD) is a super stylish, grim, weird and rough Eurotrash film, a balletic melodrama that is like Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness without the vampires. It blows (ahem) other domestic films of its vintage out of the water.

 

On THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME

A look at one of Jess Franco’s most fascinating and personal movies

It’s gratifying the level of admiration that global cinema culture now has for Spanish sleaze architect Jesus “Jess” Franco. And while it’s a shame that more of that adoration and intellectual dissection of his work didn’t thrive more prominently when he was among the living, it’s still wonderful that so many learned, passionate writers, thinkers and daring dark film lovers spend so much time talking about him.  And so they should. In the annals of film history, I cannot think of a more fascinating figure than Franco, not just because of the sheer volume of movies he made (over 200 that we know of) but because he was so driven and dictated by his obsessive need to make them. Here was a man who truly lived to make pictures, in some ways because he made pictures to live.

Which makes sense because Franco worshiped Orson Welles and indeed mentored with him making the 1965 picture Chimes at Midnight, in which Franco served as second unit director. Welles was the Hollywood poster boy for boyish rebellion and high-minded culture, a pearl before a city full of swine; he was a visionary who refused to buckle to industry standards, entering the business with a bang (1941’s Citizen Kane) and, after the harrowing ordeal that followed in that controversial film’s wake, spent the next 50 years traveling the world scraping up money to make movies exactly how he wanted to make them. Franco most assuredly took his work aesthetic from Welles’ book but while Orson would take years to prep a picture, Franco would fire out a half dozen films in the same time. Sometimes he had dough (his myriad lush psychedelic films in the late 1960s with producer Harry Alan Towers stands as his higher budgeted efforts) and sometimes he had, well, literally NO money. Didn’t matter. He just made the movies he wanted to make.

Sometimes the distributors and producers – be they Spanish, German, French, whatever – would monkey with the pictures Franco delivered. Sometimes they ordered new scenes to be shot, XXX hardcore inserts to be spliced in, different sub-plots with different actors who were more popular in the country in which said distributors had purchased the film for to be shot and included in the final cut. Often Franco rolled up his sleeves and made the changes himself, thus retaining control of the product as best he could. Occasionally, the alterations were done without him. Sometimes he used his own name on the finished film. Sometimes he used one his dozens of pseudonyms. And of course, all this substantial cinematic skullduggery has only served to enrich Franco’s enigmatic mythos, defining the ever-swelling cult that has sprouted up in recent years.

Case in point, The Sadist of Notre Dame, recently release by Severin Films via a 4K scan from elements found in a French nunnery (a likely tale, but a fun notion). Sadist is perhaps one of Franco’s most interesting and complicated movies, certainly it remains one his most personal, seeing as he opted to take on the lead role himself.  North Americans first widely encountered Sadist via Wizard Video’s VHS release in the early 1980s under the title Demoniac, a cut version of the film that dialed back much of the ample sex and violence. Years later, Synapse released the original cut of the film under the title Exorcism (it also exists in a XXX version called Sexorcismes). That version was shot in 1975 for frequent Franco bankrollers Eurocine and it’s a wet, taboo-bending affair filled with sado-masochistic sex and murder. In 1979, Eurocine asked Franco to shoot new scenes for the film and he did, inventing a new plot entirely, changing the name of characters and fleshing out his own role in the film, giving him a deeper, more tormented motive for his madness. That’s the Sadist version, which is the harder version of the Demoniac cut and while bearing the mark of its Frankenstein-stitch up structure, it’s an absolutely mesmerizing psychotronic experience.

It’s also reportedly Franco’s preferred version of the film, or so composer, author and Franco know-it-all Stephen Thrower says in the the supplemental interview on the back-end of the Blu-ray. All versions of the films see Franco star as defrocked Priest Vogel who slinks around Paris at night stalking and slashing all women who he deems to be morally corrupt. In the Exorcism cut, there’s more of an emphasis on sadism, opening as it does on a sickening – but staged – S&M performance and driven as it is by these scenes of extremity. But Sadist is closer to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. It’s a much more intimate, artful and psychological profile of a compulsive fiend and Franco plays the part to perfection, with his popping eyes spying on his prey before delivering fevered, accusatory monologues chased by a flash of his blade.  All this delirium is encased – as in most Eurocine/Franco efforts – by a melancholy, dreamy lounge jazz score by Daniel White, the perfect balm for the harsh shenanigans on screen. naturally, the beautiful Lina Romay – Jess’s muse on and off screen – shows up in both versions, looking stunning either in or out of wardrobe.

To love Franco isn’t to necessarily love all of his movies. Hell, you don’t even have to like half of them and I know – despite my citing Franco as my personal favorite filmmaker of all time – that many of his movies, I find damned near unwatchable. No, each one of Franco’s movies is a piece of a larger puzzle, a brush stroke on a massive, complex canvas and a tapestry of passion that has never been equaled. But Sadist is certainly among his best pictures. Even seen as a stand-alone bit of Euroshock, it has a mesmerizing sort of majesty, a Paris Gothic with a strong sense of place and time and purpose, that makes it immersive and unforgettable. To call it a masterpiece might be a stretch but calling it a Jess Franco Masterpiece is absolutely on point.