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Watched this afternoon with ms_siobhan and planet_andy for one of our regular Sunday afternoon horror sessions.

I've seen it before, but it was some 20 years ago now, while a first-year student at Hiatt Baker Hall in Bristol. What I remember most about it was it being very slow, and that certainly wasn't a false memory. There are long, evocative shots of carriages driving along causeways, ships crossing oceans and Isabelle Adjani running through a plague-ridden town, while plot and dialogue languish neglected in the background. In all fairness, those long shots are extremely beautiful, and together with the rather dreamlike behaviour of the characters and atmospheric strains of the music they are clearly meant to capture the spirit (if not the exact characteristics) of the 1922 Nosferatu's Expressionism - just as Herzog explicitly says in a little featurette included on the DVD. But it did mean that our attention sometimes drifted rather from the story, and we found ourselves giving voice to frustrated exclamations along the lines of "FFS, get on with it!"

The story follows the template of the 1922 Nosferatu pretty closely, though it reverts to the original character names from Stoker's novel, which was safely out of copyright by the time it was made. Weirdly, Lucy and Mina's names are basically swapped over for no particular reason, so that they match up with the wrong characters - but never mind! As a Dracula adaptation, a few things particularly struck me about it, some of which I believe are also to be found in the 1922 version, though it is a while since I watched that (and not, as far as I can tell, since I started reviewing films on LJ in 2007):

Early on, a Transylvanian villager warns Jonathan Harker that Castle Dracula is nothing but a ruin, and that only people who have already entered into the world of the phantoms and spirits who inhabit it see anything more. Sure enough, when Jonathan arrives, he sees and enters a very plausibly Eastern-European-looking castle, but the scenes set within it are interspersed with long shots showing a ruined shell, as if to imply that that is the reality and his experience is an illusion. I really like this idea - it is good and Gothic and spooky anyway, and also means that the fact the historical Dracula's family castle is a ruin doesn't have to get in the way of it also being an opulent trap for the unwary traveller, if seen in the right light.

There is some lovely shadow-work involving Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu, which definitely does derive from the 1922 film, but is used in different settings. I was especially taken by a scene soon after he has arrived in Wismar (where the main human characters live), and his looming shadow falls over the house where they are gathered in the warmth and light within.

The agency in the film belongs almost entirely to Lucy (or Mina by any other name), Isabelle Adjani's character. Dr. Van / Von Helsing (the subtitles kept oscillating between the two) is utterly useless, refusing to believe in all this superstitious vampire nonsense, while although Jonathan Harker makes it back to Wismar, he never really recovers from being nibbled on by Dracula in his castle, and just sits there all feverish and vampirish in the corner. So it is she on her own who works out from a book given to Jonathan by the Transylvanian villagers what is happening and how to stop it - that is, by making the same tragic self-sacrifice as her equivalent character, Ellen, in the 1922 film. Quite a few Dracula adaptations allow Mina (aka Lucy here and Ellen in 1922) to kill Dracula at the end of the story, but I can't think of any other in which she also acts as her own Van Helsing figure, let alone in the face of cold water from the real Van Helsing. And yet its roots are in the 1922 version of the film - at least, as far as I can tell between the Wikipedia plot summary and my own hazy memory. The 1922 take seems to do less to disempower the men, while Ellen's self-sacrifice is of course the age-old and utterly sexist trope of male bestiality being tamed by feminine purity at a fatal cost to the woman concerned. But the 1979 take, while preserving that sacrifice, shifts the power-balance very much in Lucy's favour by making Van Helsing unable to grasp the truth and Jonathan unable to break free from Dracula's influence. I definitely liked it, anyway.

There is some proper hand-stapling Gothic dialogue, like the following from Count Dracula:
Time is an abyss... profound as a thousand nights... Centuries come and go... To be unable to grow old is terrible... Death is not the worst... Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futilities...
In fact, there is a quite intense scene between him and Lucy in which she spouts much the same kind of stuff, so that between that and the final scene where she willingly gives herself to him in order to save the town and her husband, there is a definite sense of tragic, forbidden attraction between them, which also worked very nicely.

All in all, definitely worth watching again, especially after having seen the 1922 version (which I hadn't when I first saw this). But, as I said to ms_siobhan afterwards, that'll probably do me for another 20 years.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 8th, 2014 08:12 am (UTC)
I loved the soundtrack - beautifully haunting (no wonder Kate Bush also uses some of it on Hounds of Love) and the shadow work is stunning but some things really stuck out uncomfortably - bit of modern-ness (that big white plastic box) on the ship in what was otherwise a really eerie entrance into the town of the ship and the fact that if the Count is so fed up and miserable with his existence - why doesn't he just stay up til daylight? and why are crosses only powerful if they are not just visible but actively looked upon by the vampire?
Dec. 8th, 2014 09:06 pm (UTC)
Oh dear, yes - that plastic box was inexcusable!

Crosses and vampires - obviously, there is no real logic here, but I guess it is like a psychological trauma for them. At least, if you subscribe to the theory that their supernatural powers come from them being servants of the Devil, it makes some sort of sense that when they see a cross, they are reminded with horror of everything they have lost by turning to the dark side (as it were). But if you see vampirism as something more like a sort of virus which causes physical changes to the body, it doesn't really make any sense at all that crosses (or Bibles, or holy water, or consecrated hosts) should particularly bother them.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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