F.W. Murnau’s 1922 picture was a revolutionary landmark for the silent film era and it was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula which is why the monikers (a giggling Renfield is still intact) and situations have been slightly modified to avoid copyright infringement. Nevertheless, with a live orchestra, the film is still an audacious shocker. It would almost be sacrilegious for anyone to remake it. However, the pugnacious team of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski were dithyrambic enough to embark upon it.
Much like his Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call- New Orleans, Herzog won’t be infernally indebted to the original. Herzog is first and foremost a formalist director whose penchant is surrealistic symbolism and dreamscapes, For instance, the preliminary shots are mummified remains in an underground cavern (they are actually skeletons from a 1833 cholera epidemic in the Guanajuato region) and a bat soaring through the night in slow-motion.
Modern audiences will undoubtedly quaver at the languorous rhythm of the film and how many of the actors are stately and reserved as if they are day-players from an Ingmar Bergman film. The filming locations throughout Mexico (supplanted for the Carpathian estate) are pulchritudinous. The mountainside photography encapsulates the au naturale Stendhal’s Syndrome which is something that Dracula can no longer bask in due to his accursed state.
Herzog is intrepid with both his deliberate pacing and a few slivers of olive-black raillery such as the quintessential scene in which Harker (Bruno Ganz) shrieks at the innkeeper for his dinner so he can promptly ascend to the castle of Count Dracula (Kinski). Everyone is aghast at his announcement including a duck in a basket that quickly concentrates on him with a similarly appalled expression.
Despite the rating system being enacted by this juncture, Herzog doesn’t splatter the canvass with innards and hemoglobin. He is more mesmerized by the moodiness of the Gregorian chants and sprawling beauty of the countryside as contrasts to the unilateral solitude of Dracula.
With arthritic mannerisms and vermin-like fangs, Kinski is more of a dysmorphic Quasimodo than a dashing, debonair aristocrat. Even his dinning quarters are recessed into a cramped corner which illustrates that Dracula hardly entertains guests. From the immortal musings about his existence (“Can you imagine enduring centuries?”), Kinski is not a slasher villain. He is much more hideously tragic.
Another marvel within Kinski’s sensuously unpredictable, wheezing performance is he rarely blinks when his prey is near and he lurches with a weariness except for when Harker slices himself with a knife. Through a burst of feral energy, Kinski tosses the chair aside as he stalks toward Harker’s wound to imbibe his hand before “blood poisoning” can be contracted.
Some shots are precise replicas of Murnau’s framing (ex. Dracula’s conversion of Harker is replete with callbacks such as Kinski’s arched hands) but this is fundamentally Herzog’s painstakingly visionary take on the vampire legend (sans the collagen of side characters) with unrelenting longing for a cessation to suffering and Kinski’s bedeviled exhibition.