Given that the genre has produced such exercises in frozen beauty as Dreyer’s Vampyr and Herzog’s Nosferatu, Michael Almereyda’s second feature doesn’t make it as the artiest vampire movie of all time, though not for the want of trying. Shot in ravishingly sharp black and white, with inserts in Almereyda’s trademarked PixelVision to suggest the inhuman visions of its undead, this makes imaginative use of New York locations, even finding effective stand-ins for the Black Sea and Castle Dracula on Staten Island or a derelict hospital. With exploitation elements blurred or eliminated (no nudity, little blood) and a group of blankly miserablist characters spouting doom-haunted self-analysis (‘I have walked behind the sky, we are all animals, but there is a better way to live’), Nadja tries hard not to be a horror movie.
Concerned with characters whose states of being don’t really count as life (the family-traumatised Jim and Lucy just as much as the undead Edgar and Nadja) this runs the risk of being entirely unapproachable. Indeed, the film is almost completely devoid of urgency or warmth. A calculated attempt to evoke the zero degree existential dreadfulness of its immortal predators’ lifestyles, this makes for a pretty slow watch as much as it does for a pretty, slow one. Elina Löwensohn, glimpsed in Schinlder’s List and featured in Amateur, is a model-gorgeous Nadja, her blankly impassive beauty more creepily suggestive than all her downbeat dialogue, while Jared Harris matches her briefly as the unreadable Edgar and Karl Geary has a few odd moments as a winsome Irish Renfield. Executive producer David Lynch pops in for a cameo as a morgue attendant, though his customary weirdness means that it’s hard to tell the difference when he is hypnotised into serving the vampire.
However, Suzy Amis, Martin Donovan and Galaxy Craze are stuck with the human roles: lifeless stooges, they are dragged along by a plot which establishes absurdly but not amusingly complex relationships between all the characters and blithely winds up with Nadja-as-Cassandra marrying someone who is legally her uncle and, if Van Helsing’s irrelevant mid-point revelation is to be credited, perhaps biologically her father. The only loose cannon in the cast is Peter Fonda, cast as a cycling fearless vampire killer with long hair and granny glasses who gets to rant that the dying Dracula ‘was like Elvis … drugs, confused, surrounded by zombies’ and seems to have picked up from his prey the habit of sleeping in a piano. Fonda is also glimpsed as a PixelVision Count writhing on a stake, sharing the role with clips of Bela Lugosi’s hypnotic eyes taken not from Universal’s 1930 Dracula but from the public domain White Zombie. Fonda’s turn is amusing and brings more pep to the film than its one burst of apparent action: the garage fight, in which Nadja crushes a few heads with black and white gore effects and seems to be destroyed in a low-budget explosion that has no effect on the plot.
As if under the impression that a vampire movie should literally be a parasite on other movies, Almereyda has taken his plot almost intact from Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter, a swift and underrated 1936 sequel. In ‘updating’, Nadja brings out the lesbian theme by having Dracula’s Daughter (Gloria Holden in the old film) fall for the heroine rather than the hero, and in bulking out the tight plot, the film throws in the character of Nadja’s turncoat vampire brother. Otherwise, this is character-for-character and beat-for-beat a remake of the earlier movie. While Hillyer and Holden were content to let their despairing, self-loathing Countess be subtly sympathetic, Nadja fumbles its attitude to the heroine. First, she is a tragic survivor of a bathetically dysfunctional family (‘my father was a cruel and distant man who didn’t care we existed’); then, an out-of-control madwoman unaware of the damage she does. The overfamiliar possession finale (old when The Hunger borrowed it from Daughters of Darkness) doubles back again, to suggest incoherently that maybe the vampire-killers are the destroyers of beauty and tenderness. The contrast with Dracula’s Daughter shows that unconscious art can be more profound than ironic icon-invocation and gallons of mood.
First published in Sight & Sound.