Monday, August 10, 2009

Kinski Goes Vamp Again: NOSFERATU IN VENICE (1988)

Although well regarded today, Werner Herzog's 1979 remake of NOSFERATU saw its share of critical derision, some viewing it as a production that placed style over substance. For example, the LONDON FINANCIAL TIMES saw it as "a series of swoony dream images that hover perilously on the brink of TV prettiness," while Gene Wright claimed that it was "beautiful to look at, but it barely raises the gooseflesh" (both quoted in Leonard Wolf's HORROR: A CONNOISSEUR'S GUIDE TO LITERATURE AND FILM). What then would they have made of its sequel-in-name-only, the Italian lensed NOSFERATU IN VENICE? A troubled production from its very beginning, its original director, Mario Caiano, left the film after an argument with Klaus Kinski, after which producer Augusto Caminito assigned himself the job of directing the film. Without any actual directing experience, Caminito apparently received help from Argento apprentice Luigi Cozzi, as well as from Kinski himself. While far from any sort of masterpiece, the fact that the film turned out at all watchable seems like a miracle unto itself.

Of course, no one should approach NOSFERATU IN VENICE expecting a coherent narrative. A muddled mess, the story involves a centuries-old vampire--just called "Nosferatu," it seems, though some viewers assume him to be Dracula, if only because Herzog's NOSFERATU gave him that identity. In fact, despite the fact that the film-makers behind NOSFERATU IN VENICE planned on using the same make-up on Kinski, the actor reportedly rejected the idea, insisting upon appearing with a full head of hair. Thus, only the rat-like fangs, seen occasionally in this film, get imported from Herzog's film. Having nothing else in common with that film, the progression of events start with the arrival of Christopher Plummer, here playing a vampire expert with an uncanny physical resemblance to Peter Cushing, to a Venice villa, which was once the site of the vampire's carnage hundreds of years ago. The villa serves as a home to the same family, and it includes a crypt containing a mysterious coffin, which one person in the family suspects belongs to the same undead creature (though the truth turns out to be otherwise). During a seance, the family manages to summon the vampire, who travels to Venice with a death-wish that can only be fulfilled by a woman who gives herself to him willingly.

Again, we have very little to connect to Herzog's remake of NOSFERATU, and ultimately, NOSFERATU IN VENICE actually best resembles an attractively shot remake of DARK SHADOWS, especially with its emphasis on a regal family revisited by an undead menace. Also, perhaps because of Cozzi's influence, this film emphasizes exploitation elements in a much more pronounced way that Herzog's. Blood splatters on occasion, especially with characters having the habit of falling out of windows onto spiked fences, and Kinski plays the character in a much more overtly sexually-ravenous way than he did previously, at times tearing garments off of his female victims. Moreover, the fucking that often only occurs metaphorically in vampire films takes place here in much more literal way. In addition, the film-makers take liberties with vampire lore, including giving Kinski's Nosferatu the ability to manipulate his appearance as well as that of others. This ability proves key during a crucial staking scene.

Despite its short-comings, NOSFERATU IN VENICE does across as a beautifully shot film, most notably in terms of the atmospheric use of Venice locations, and in many ways, it truly out-does Herzog's film in terms of "prettiness." Other arresting visual set-pieces occur later in the film, when the vampire takes his intended victims to an island once occupied by plague victims. Interestingly, while 1979's NOSFERATU received accusations that it amounted to nothing more than a "pretty" film, it has endured as a landmark vampire film. Whether anyone will care about NOSFERATU IN VENICE in later decades, only time will tell.

No comments: