Nosferatu in Venice(1988)
Studio: Severin Films
Release date: March 30th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
On its face, Nosferatu in Venice is a familiar tale of the 80s Italo-schlock scene. Looking to capitalize on a familiar title, an enterprising producer (in this case, Carlo Alberto Alfieri) set out to make an unofficial follow-up to a successful film (Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu) in a blatant act of exploitation. It’s a tale we’ve heard many times before, but only this one involves a deranged Klaus Kinski burning through four different directors until Alfieri just decided to release the film unfinished, making this one of the strangest chapters in Eurohorror lore. The film itself is a similarly curious affair that feels like a half-remembered dream once you’ve witnessed its hazy, impressionistic riff on a familiar theme, so it’s both like and unlike any Dracula tale all at once.
That strange contradiction is immediately evident, as Nosferatu in Venice opens with an obsessed professor who’s tracked Nosferatu through the ages, only this time it’s not Van Helsing but rather Paris Catalano (Christopher Plummer). His research has concluded that the undead fiend was last seen centuries ago in Venice before he disappeared into the ether. Now, Catalano has arrived in town to determine his exact whereabouts by staying with the family that supposedly entombed the vampire all those years ago. During his investigation into the family’s history, he learns that their daughter Helietta (Barbara De Rossi) might be the reincarnation of Nosferatu’s former lover. Unfortunately, they’re about to find out for sure because they conduct a séance to resurrect the bloodsucker, who resumes his reign of terror throughout Vienna—despite his insistence that he just wants to die.
As you can imagine, Nosferatu in Venice isn’t the most lucid tale—again, it boasted four different directors (including Luigi Cozzi, who started on the production as the effects supervisor), each of whom brought in their own script ideas while battling Kinski’s own input and chaotic whims. It’s a wonder it’s even remotely watchable, let alone as weirdly compelling as it is. The title inevitably invites comparisons to Herzog’s film, which is foolish because it’s barely recognizable as a follow-up to that film, if only because it’d be an impossibility anyway. You may recall that Kinski’s Dracula was very dead at the end of that film, and you certainly recall that the actor was virtually unrecognizable in the role, his head shaved and his visage transformed into a hideous, pale beast. Kinski’s turn as Dracula feels like watching a creature that’s forgotten how to be human—it’s one of the most truly astonishing, transcendent performances ever captured on screen. The same can’t be said for his “reprisal,” where Kinski refused to undergo the same make-up process, leaving him to appear with a shock of wild white hair and his own manic facial expressions.
Only the rat teeth returned from that iconic look in Herzog’s production, and some would argue that was enough since Kinski—an already notoriously difficult performer—was now more unhinged than ever. His behavior ranged from erratic (he often refused to hit his marks, resulting in the lighting needing to be redone on the spot) to downright abusive (he literally assaulted multiple co-stars), causing production to be shut down until he apologized to the cast and crew. In another time, this kind of behavior may have been romanticized, and, before knowing just how monstrous a person Kinski was, I was prone to lionizing him as a sort of mad genius. Sometimes, our awe for genius compels us to accept bad behavior as a side effect, which only perpetuates a misguided note that true art needs to be forged out of some crucible. Such a mentality comes at the expense of the victims, and no art is worth unwanted pain and suffering, and Nosferatu in Venice is practically haunted by its star’s behavior. Not only did it literally sabotage its production (again, this might be the only movie I can think of that was released unfinished simply because nobody could deal with the star), but it’s also become the film’s legacy, effectively overshadowing an otherwise fascinating—if not understandably flawed—effort.
For all the turmoil surrounding it, Nosferatu in Venice manages some striking moments: Plummer’s entrance on Vienna’s canals subtly evokes Jonathan Harker’s approach to Transylvania in Herzog’s film, plus the footage of Kinski wandering through the town (shot on his own with a camera operator) is quite evocative. Occasionally, the film’s various directors do harness the sort of majestic eeriness of The Vampyre, particularly during the film’s quieter, more haunting scenes. At one point, Nosferatu visits a colony of Romani outcasts who worship vampires and consider him some kind of undead god, and it approaches the kind of stately lyricism of the film that inspired it. “There is no meaning in life that never ends,” Kinski murmurs, hinting at an existential despair that never quite takes hold in a film that’s just as preoccupied with gory outbursts, garish effects work, and a labyrinthine plot.
There are times when Nosferatu in Venice earns its unofficial association with its “predecessor,” but they’re fleeting specters unable to outpace the multiple impalements and decomposing corpses that make it a much closer kin to the era’s Eurohorror output. Even if it isn’t as completely unhinged as the most notorious films from this time, it carries a streak of outlandish incoherence that ultimately keeps it a little too loopy to take seriously, no matter how ponderous its final shot may be. At the end of the day, it’s still a movie where Nosferatu shakes off a huge, gaping wound in his chest* after Plummer shoots him during a confrontation. It’s not the climactic confrontation, though, since Plummer’s Van Helsing surrogate just packs his bags and leaves with about fifteen minutes left in the movie. Donald Pleasance’s priest, who is relatively restrained for most of the film, lets loose, accosting him with the same manic tenor he flashes as Dr. Loomis, but to no avail. My man just simply decides Nosferatu isn’t worth the trouble after all. If I were complicit in resurrecting a centuries-old undead fiend, I would simply leave town, too.
Of course, in this case, we know why Nosferatu in Venice is so incoherent and fractured, so it only feels fair to grade it on a curve. Kinski remains the double-edge sword of Damocles looming over the production, acting as both its savior and its saboteur. Without his involvement, it’s likely the film never gets made, much less garners any kind of attention; of course, he garnered it infamy more than anything else, so you’re left with a constant tug-of-war. There’s no denying his screen presence, even here, when he only half-reprised one of his most iconic roles. You can’t take your eyes off of Kinski, whose personal demons haunt a fascinating performance but undermine the film at all once. As is the case with all of Kinski’s work, navigating Nosferatu in Venice is a constant act of separating the art from the artist, but it ultimately might prove to be too difficult here, where the artist’s self-destructiveness is so entrenched in the art.
*Shades of Freddy Krueger in The Dream Master, which seems appropriate given Robert Englund modeled his physicality after Kinski’s Nosferatu.
Regardless of how you might feel about Kinski (and I’m not one to shame folks who can separate the art from the artist—you do you!), Severin’s release of Nosferatu in Venice is a launching point for exploring the actor’s later years. Their presentation provides a customary HD upgrade over One 7 Movies’s DVD release and boasts both English and Italian soundtracks in pristine DTS-HD MA quality. The transfer is well done, with the only noticeable flaws owing to some minor, sporadic print damage; otherwise, it looks quite immaculate.
But the feature presentation is only half the story here, as Nosferatu in Venice is paired with Creation is Violent, a feature-length documentary about the final five years of Kinski’s tumultuous life. Featuring both professional collaborators and personal acquaintances, it paints a complex portrait of the firebrand actor. The various anecdotes provide an unflinching look: make no mistake, Klaus Kinski was a mercurial asshole who wreaked havoc on every set described here. Whether it was his refusal to go along with scripts or tolerate a boom mic hanging over him, his behavior was childish and unprofessional at best; at his worst, Kinski often terrorized female co-stars, so much so that some took great lengths to thwart his unwanted advances. Some participants are able to laugh off his behavior in hindsight, but others (like David Schmoeller, who later directed a documentary titled Please Kill Mister Kinski) don’t mince words about how revolting he could be.
The first half of the doc veers on the side of gossipy, tabloid stuff, and it would almost feel disrespectful to hear so many people speaking ill of the dead if Kinski didn’t deserve it (especially when you consider the even more unpleasant allegations not covered here). Some of the attempts to excuse or laugh off Kinski’s antics also provide an unwitting reminder that the environment that allowed him to thrive in the first place still exists: unfortunately, it seems like there will always be a willingness to tolerate abhorrent behavior for the sake of great art. I understand the impulse, but watching Creation is Violent removes any doubt that Kinski’s career was somehow worth the pain and torment he inflicted throughout his life.
The second half tries to mount a counter-argument of sorts: after providing a post-mortem examination of Nosferatu in Venice and Paganini (Kinski’s final project, which he directed and wrote), it describes the actor’s final years living as a semi-recluse in California, where he bonded with a postal worker and her daughter (both of whom appear in the documentary). Their anecdotes about Kinski may as well be describing an entirely different person, as they fondly remember him as a curious, playful old man who was generous enough to sponsor the daughter’s competitive bicycling career. It would seem that Kinski found some measure of peace during this time after living a whirlwind of a life marked by trauma and pain. Some participants do make note that Kinski battled with mental illness throughout his life and speculate about how his experiences in World War II may have shaped him. It does at least invite you to give pause and consider that Kinski was haunted by something, but Creation is Violent also reminds us that there might be limits to extending empathy when we’re talking about such despicable behavior. The documentary does a fair job in this respect by not romanticizing Kinski when trying to account for his demons. If nothing else, it’s a testament to the complexity of human nature: it’s true that Klaus Kinski could be generous, affectionate, and loyal, but it’s also true that he was a monster with a deservedly tarnished legacy.
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