We tend to celebrate ripoffs here a lot and use that word as a loving tribute to filmmakers who make their own versions of stories that are perhaps a bit better known. One of the most famous ripoffs of all time is F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, which changed minor parts and character names of Dracula to avoid the copyrights owned by Bram Stoker’s estate. However, a lawsuit shut the movie down and all prints of the film were to be destroyed. Luckily, several prints were destroyed and restored after the copyright expired.
By 1979, the original silent film was seen as a classic in its own right. Indeed, director Werner Herzog considered it to be the greatest movie to ever come out of Germany. As the story of Dracula was now in the public domain, he decided to remake the film with the names of Stoker’s original story intact.
The primary reason to watch this film is, of course, Klaus Kinski as the vampire. Made up as a virtual imitation of original actor Max Schreck by Japanese artist Reiko Kruk — sessions that took four hours, which amazes me that Kinski didn’t kill everyone around him — he’s a wonder here, owning every single frame he can grab, hold and steal. His version of Dracula isn’t the romantic lover that so many other films present. He’s tragic, unloveable and doomed to live forever.
Isabelle Adjani — whose role in Possession proves that she’s certainly equal to Kinski in the “how far can you take it” theory of acting — also shines as Mina Harker, here shown to be more than the better half of Jonathan. It’s her whiles and brains that doom the vampire more than any machination of the men in this film, even if it takes a supreme sacrifice to end the reign of the count.
Much like how the original Universal films had separate English and Spanish versions shot at different times, Herzog made an English and German version of the film. While that’s to be commended, I’m not a fan of some of the things that happened during the making of this movie.
The opening sequence was filmed by at the Mummies of Guanajuato museum in Mexico. Here, naturally mummified bodies of the victims of a cholera epidemic are on public display. The director shot this footage himself, taking the corpses out of the glass cases in which they are normally stored and placing them against a wall in order of ages from childhood to old age. It seems in poor taste — at best — to use these real human beings for a throwaway scene.
Herzog also erred in his treatment of animals while shooting this film. He hired Maarten ‘t Hart for his expertise in dealing with rats, but the Dutch behavioral biologist quit the film in disgust after seeing how badly the animals were treated. They were imported from Hungary in such bad conditions that many of them began to feed on one another by the time they arrived at the set. To make things even rougher, Herzog demanded that the white rats be died gray in boiling hot water, leading to half of their population dying. The ones that survived stayed white, as they licked the new color off.
Still, Herzog has stated that the rats behaved better than Kinski. He wanted a more restrained performance than Kinski was intent on delivering, so he had to wind the actor up and have him flip out before major scenes. That way, he’d be too exhausted to play the role any other way.