If you're in the market for a filmed version of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Werner Herzog's 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre is but one choice among many: F.W. Murnau's silent Nosferatu (of which Herzog's film is a remake/homage), Tod Browning's version with Bela Lugosi, and Francis Ford Coppola's strangely cast and over-the-top but visually spectacular adaptation -- and those are just the ones that I've seen. And if all you're after is the basic plot -- real estate agent sells city home to Transylvanian count, vampire moves west with designs on the throat of said agent's wife, bloodsucking ensues -- pretty much any of them will get the job done.
But then, nobody goes into a Werner Herzog movie just to see a plot unfold. They go for the director's audacious, go-for-broke style. So it was disappointing to find that the beginning portion of Nosferatu is mostly missing that Herzogian quality. There's nothing necessarily wrong with it, but it feels like an attempt to make the movie that Murnau would have made if he had access to late-20th century technology: with color, sound, movable cameras, location photography, and an atmospheric score from Krautrock band Popol Vuh. As Johnathan Harker (played by Bruno Ganz, perhaps best known as the actor in all of those YouTube videos of an irate Hitler) slowly makes his journey to Dracula's castle, I was ready to dismiss the film as an unnecessary retread.
Ah, but when the Count himself finally appeared onscreen, it was a different story. Frequent Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski is such a sinister presence that it's difficult to be anything less than transfixed when he occupies the frame. Kinski wears the same ghoulish makeup that Max Schreck wore in the original, and also copies Schreck's stiff-backed, slow movements (although he is also capable of quickly scurrying around, like the rodent he so closely resembles). It is also, at times, a surprisingly understated performance, as Kinski plays Dracula as a lonely creature tormented by his immortality. For better or for worse, the modern trope of the angst-ridden vampire has some of its roots here.
The film doesn't really start to get going, however, until Dracula arrives in Wisborg (the film's analogue to London in Stoker's novel). Beginning with unbroken shot of the ship carrying the vampire drifting slowly and eerily through a canal, this is where it felt like Herzog finally diverged from his source material and indulged in his own whims. As townsfolk keep dying mysteriously and everyone fears the Plague, Herzog sets many hauntingly apocalyptic images in the town square: lines of casket-carrying pallbearers (shot from above to look like centipedes), livestock roaming freely among the dwindling survivors, and a group holding a self-described last supper as hundreds of rats swarm at their feet (Herzog's fascination with animals is evident -- edited into the film are several slow-motion clips of a bat in flight). The film improves right until its final scene, where unexpected comedy and a bleak twist mingle side by side.