This isn’t the literal translation of the book. This is European. The dialogue about death and insanity are pure Herzog as he uses the characters to explore the themes of gothic horror like the battle between progress and the past and ideas of faith and time as opposed to shape-shifting antics. The triumph of madness and the raising of sex over science as the solution subverting the book. Less ersatz-gothic, more the real thing that evokes existential as well as physical horror.
Gone is the British setting, the action has shifted into Holland and the continent with its canals and distinctive architecture, castles that are in disrepair, a landscape at once fertile and haunted. It is nature that is uncontrolled and sublime in the sense Burke defined. The landscape is shot so as to overwhelm Harker the further he travels east.
The performances that seem mannered in a way that highlights the issue of performance and facade in the gothic genre.
Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu brings an animal intensity and pathos. A chilling, creepy look masks the viciousness and patheticness that lurks just below the surface. This film explores the real dilemma that being a vampire brings – the horror of ever-lasting life: the loss of humanity, human contact and love?
As a gothic film it works on two levels. It plies the tropes of the genre – Nosferatu is an aristocrat from the past, enemy of Christianity and enlightenment reason he is a creature that is animalistic, representing the threat of the east to the west. In this film he brings disease, scything through respectable towns and their social order whilst defying modern medicine.
The film also turns the conventional solutions found in gothic horror upside down and reverses the gender roles in the novel. Science and the men are useless, Van Helsing repeatedly refuses to see anything but scientific reason ignoring faith and superstition. Mina is relegated from the source of order, no longer collating the journals, to useless. Most importantly it is the ‘bad woman’ Lucy Westenra who is the hero.
Indeed, science is not the answer but faith and superstition. Now it is the sensual and erotic Lucy Westenra (played with the luminous beauty of Isabelle Adjani), the epitome of female desire in the book who is the hero.
Another highlight is the gorgeous soundtrack conducted which manages to be beautiful and surreal with chants and luscious orchestral work that serve reinforce either the creepiness of the atmosphere or the sublime of the landscape .
Unfortunately the film missed a lot of the truly chilling and memorable imagery from the book: the approach of the ship to Whitby whilst a band plays discordant music on a stormy beach; Harker’s glimpse of Dracula crawling around the wall of his castle.
It is an interesting take on the book, perhaps a comment on the facade of Victorian ideals and the power of science, the enlightenment and gender roles in the face of nature.