Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 adaptation of Dracula is at once an effective and touching tribute to the German silent classic and a remarkable work in its own right. Arriving almost simultaneously with John Badham’s Dracula and the George Hamilton comedy Love at First Bite, it retells Bram Stoker’s story in a steady, almost hypnotic manner. Jonathan Harker (Ganz) travels through mistily beautiful yet threatening Carpathian mountainscapes, accompanied by a magical Popol Vuh score, to arrange for the relocation of the rat-faced, repulsive but melancholy Count Dracula (Kinski) from his castle fastness to the thriving city of Bremen. When his boat drifts into dock, the vampire unleashes a horde of white rats who bring plague to the community and cause far more death and devastation than his few petty predations. In this version, Van Helsing (Ladengast) is a petty irrelevance who is carried away by the police after Dracula’s death, and – as for Murnau – humanity is represented by the heroine, the porcelain-fragile Lucy (Adjani), whose self-sacrifice tempts the ancient creature to linger beyond sunrise.
Adding in themes perhaps drawn from vampire films by Mario Bava (Black Sabbath) or Roman Polanski (Dance of the Vampires), the coda has Jonathan transformed into Dracula reborn and galloping across a beach to spread the contagion further. Opening with footage of Mexican mummies and slow-motion bats, the film is misty and suggestive, recreating famous images of the long-fingered, hollow-eyed bloodsucker from the original film as Kinski’s slightly whiny, self-pitying, nevertheless vicious Dracula elaborates on the inhumanity of Max Schreck’s Graf von Orlok. With the novelist Roland Topor (The Tenant) as a giggling Renfield and very strange, portrait-like readings of the traditional hero and heroine roles from Ganz and Adjani, this is unconventional as a horror movie – with scare scenes that are paced slowly, struck by magical or black comic business (a town square cluttered with dignified funerals and scurrying rodents) rather than anything like action or even plot. If the original Nosferatu remains the most frightening screen Dracula, then this transformative rethinking is the most mystic and mysterious.