Saturday, 21 May 2022

Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967)

Belle de Jour (1967) is Luis Buñuel's most famous movie and his biggest commercial hit. It's a fascinating exercise in surrealism and eroticism and it's a movie that is perplexing and challenging, but in a good way. You think you have it all figured out then you watch it a second time and you change your mind completely. An art film that is also utterly entralling.

Catherine Deneuve gives her career-best performance.

You can find my full review here.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

The Sister of Ursula (1978)

The Sister of Ursula (La sorella di Ursula) is a 1978 giallo which has all necessary ingredients (including a black-gloved killer) but of course having the right ingredients isn’t always enough. It was written and directed by Enzo Milioni.

The movie establishes its exploitation credentials pretty quickly, with entirely gratuitous female frontal nudity within the first few minutes. There’ll be lots more of that as the movie progresses. The fact that the murder weapon is a dildo tells you that this is essentially a sleazefest.

Ursula and Dagmar Beyne are two Austrian sisters who have travelled to Italy to look for their mother. It’s something to do with their late father’s inheritance. They’re staying at a nice luxury hotel but Ursula just wants to leave and she wants to leave now.

Ursula (Barbara Magnolfi) is a highly strung girl who has nightmares and she thinks her nightmares might be visions (possibly of the past or possibly of the future). Perhaps she has paranormal abilities. Dagmar (Stefania D'Amario) just thinks that Ursula hasn’t recovered from their father’s death.

The last thing Ursula needs is to find herself in the middle of a brutal murder case but that’s what happens when a hooker is murdered in a rather grisly manner which suggests that this is some kind of sex crime.

Maybe visiting the really creepy old tower near the hotel isn’t a good idea but the two girls visit it anyway. Ursula gets rather freaked out. Visiting the tower turns out to be an even worse idea for a couple of teenage runaways. They were turned way from the hotel and were desperately looking for somewhere to make love.

There are a number of people at the hotel would could be plausible suspects. The choice of murder weapon might suggest that the killer is a man but in a giallo it pays to keep an open mind about that sort of thing. The hotel manager Roberto and his wife Vanessa (who actually owns the hotel) have an open marriage that seems to be heading for the rocks. Open marriages require a bit of discretion if they’re going to work. Vanessa has a lesbian lover, Jenny, and that’s causing some tensions with Roberto.

Filippo is a good-looking young man who has loser written all over him and his obsession with the hotel’s star attraction, singer Stella Shining (Yvonne Harlow), is not exactly being encouraged by the lady.

The discovery of the naked bodies of the young couple doesn’t do much for Ursula’s mental stability.

The final resolution is satisfying in the sense that it’s plausible and it’s definitely been sign-posted. This is a mystery movie that plays fair with the viewer. The problem is that you probably won’t be overly surprised by the reveal at the end. It’s pretty much the only logical explanation for the preceding events.

Apart from the fact that the killer’s identity isn’t quite enough of a surprise the film has a few weaknesses. This is, it has to be admitted, a second-tier giallo from a first-time director who enjoyed more success as a writer. It doesn’t have the spectacular set-pieces and visual extravagance that top-rank giallos offer. There are some good visual touches (the scene with the eyeless statue in the crypt is very creepy) but overall it’s not a movie that is overflowing with style.

On the plus side the locations are used very effectively. And there’s an astonishing amount of female frontal nudity (with some remarkably attractive young ladies) and there are a couple of pretty strong sex scenes. As far as sex and nudity are concerned this movie is fairly strong stuff.

Enzo Milioni’s career as a director was very brief. It’s not that he does a spectacularly terrible job here but in Italy in the 70s there were just so many directors who did this sort of thing with more style and energy.

Shameless in the UK released this movie on DVD and it’s still in print (and it’s very inexpensive). The anamorphic transfer is very good. The only significant extra is an extended interview with the director who comes across as a pretty charming guy.

Summing up, The Sister of Ursula is a competent and reasonably entertaining second-rank giallo with wall-to-wall naked ladies. It’s worth a look if you don’t set your expectations too high.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Gwendoline (1984), Blu-Ray review

Just Jaeckin’s Gwendoline is a kinky sexy adventure romp, inspired by the fetish comic strips of John Willie. The movie has a comic book feel. It was destined to be a cult movie from the start. Only a cult audience could appreciate such quirkiness.

Jaeckin had made Emmanuelle and The Story of O in the 70s, two of the best-known erotic movies of all time. When he directed Emmanuelle Jaeckin was already a very very successful photographer. He had never directed a movie and was chosen as director largely because he knew how to photograph women. His directing career was sporadic. He simply didn’t need to direct movies so he was able to confine himself to film projects that appealed to him.

Gwendoline, released in 1984, was a change of pace. It’s not an erotic movie as such. It is, as stated earlier, an adventure romp. It’s a sexy adventure romp.

Gwendoline (Tawny Kitaen) arrives in a seaport somewhere in Asia, packed inside a wooden crate. Neither she nor her faithful maid Beth have passports. They also don’t have any money. She is immediately kidnapped by gangsters. They want something from her but they don’t speak English so she has no idea what it is they want. Then Willard (Brent Huff) smashes through the window and takes care of the gangsters. He could rescue Gwendoline but rescuing females in not in his line. It doesn’t pay.

Willard is your typical American square-jawed hero that you’d find in comic books, pup magazines and movie serials. Except that he isn’t. He’s completely mercenary and completely selfish. The typical hero of that type should be not just ruggedly handsome and capable of out-fighting anyone he encounters, he should be pure of heart. There’s nothing pure about Willard. He’s a ruthless adventurer who loves as casually as he kills, with no thought for anyone but himself.

Gwendoline needs Willard’s help to complete her quest. Willard has no intention of doing so. But he’s never met two young ladies quite as determined as Gwendoline and Beth. They manage to con him into helping them. Willard is even more appalled when he discovers what Gwendoline’s quest is. Her father ventured into the land of the Yik-Yaks to find a rare butterfly. He collects butterflies. Very few people have entered the land of the Yik-Yaks. None have come out alive. The quest for that butterfly cost Gwendoline’s father his life. Now Gwendoline wants to find the butterfly. It’s the least she can do for poor old Dad’s memory. It’s an insane idea which seems certain to get them all killed but there’s no reasoning with Gwendoline and there’s no resisting her. And Beth is totally devoted to her mistress, and she can be just as scheming and persuasive.

After encountering countless perils our three adventurers reach the land of the Yik-Yak. It’s an amazon society ruled over by an evil insane queen. The only man there is an ageing scientist, hopelessly in thrall to the queen. He has discovered the secret of the mountain in which the Yik-Yak live. It involves a volcano and a lot of diamonds.

While John Willie’s Sweet Gwendoline comic strips were bondage/fetish oriented Jaeckin wanted to do a comedy adventure romance, but with enough kinkiness to keep things interesting.

The highlights of the movie are the sets and the costumes, and the wonderfully bizarre visual set-pieces. The chariots pulled by girls are a lovely touch.

The problem many people have with this movie is that it really is a lighthearted adventure comedy movie but it has a lot more nudity than the audience of that sort of movie is going to be prepared for. The number of bare breasts defies counting. On the other hand it’s nowhere near explicit enough to satisfy the audience for sex films. You just have to accept that it’s a unique hybrid, a kinky erotic adventure romp.

The casting works perfectly. Jaeckin needed a heroine who was beautiful and striking and sexy but Gwendoline also has to be sweet and innocent and amusing and a bit crazy (but in a nice way). Tawny Kitaen manages to do all that. Brent Huff does the cynical hardbitten adventurer thing to perfection. Zabou Breitman makes Beth more than just a side-kick, and she’s delightful. The three leads combine perfectly.

There’s plenty of kinkiness here but it’s all done in a fun way and in a fantastic way. This is not reality. There’s not a single mention of a real country or a real city and no indication of the time period in which the story is set. It takes place in a totally imaginary world, a kind of dream world, and everything about that world is pure fantasy, so scenes which might have been a little disturbing become witty and amusingly outré rather than disturbing. And it’s basically a good-natured movie.

Jaeckin is a director that critics at the time liked to sneer at. He was dismissed as little more than a pornographer. To a large extent this critical disdain resulted from the fact that Emmanuelle was the most commercially successful French movie of all time. A movie that aims for popular success and achieves it always enrages a certain kind of film critic. Gwendoline was a major hit as well, which made those critics dislike Jaeckin even more. In fact Jaeckin’s movies were successful because Jaeckin knew how to make visually lush movies that look incredibly expensive and work perfectly within the confines of what he was trying to achieve. And he could make ambitious movies and bring them in on time and on budget. His filmography is small but includes three movies (Emmanuelle, The Story of O, Gwendoline) that are the best movies of their type ever made.

Severin have really excelled themselves with the extras on their Blu-Ray release. There are two commentary tracks (one of them featuring Just Jaeckin), there are two interviews with the director, an interview with the producer, an interview with production designer Françoise De Leu and another with Claude Renard and François Schuiten who were responsible for the overall visual concept.

Gwendoline is in my view Jaeckin’s best movie. It’s a rollicking adventure yarn, a love story, an exercise in classy low-key erotica and an orgy of visual extravagance. The budget was enormous for an 80s French movie but paltry by Hollywood standards but visually it puts Hollywood movies of that era to shame. It’s total fun. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Barbarella, the comic books

Barbarella is one of the great pop culture icons. Every cult movie fan has of course seen the movie but if you haven't checked out the comics you're missing out on a treat.

Barbarella was created by Jean-Claude Forest and the first Barbarella comic appeared in 1962. The comics are witty, clever, stylish and good-natured. And very sexy.

And at least the first two are available in English translations. My review can be found here.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

The Kyoto Connection (1973)

The Kyoto Connection (also known as Journey to Japan) is one of a couple of movies that Christina Lindberg made in Japan. The Japanese just loved her, which shows that the Japanese have good taste.

She couldn’t speak Japanese but this movie makes a virtue out of a necessity. She’s playing a Swedish girl who can’t speak Japanese and therefore doesn’t understand what is happening to her. Crucially at the beginning of the film she would never have landed herself in such a bizarre situation had she had even a basic command of Japanese. She speaks her lines in Swedish, with Japanese subtitles, and it works.

Ingrid Jacobsen (Lindberg) arrives in Japan by air. There will be a car waiting for her at the airport. The driver will recognise her by the pink rose she’s carrying. Unfortunately she gets into the wrong car by mistake. She gets into the car belonging to a geeky student (played by Ichirô Araki). I don’t think his name is mentioned so we’ll call him Araki. He daydreams about being a revolutionary and makes very ineffective bombs in his spare time. And he daydreams about women. He is a virgin and he is absolutely hopeless with women. He gets so nervous he can’t speak.

He has no idea what to do when this gorgeous Swedish chick jumps into his car. Eventually he decides to take her back to his apartment. He’s still not sure what to do but he figures that raping her would be a good start. She is a bit troublesome about this so he decides it would be a good idea to chain her up.

Since he can’t get a girlfriend in the ordinary way and he now has a stunning Swedish beauty chained up in his apartment he decides to keep her.

This is where the movie’s cleverness comes in, and where it gets disturbing in a clever way. Because she can’t talk to him she has no idea what he intends to do with her. She can’t ask him if he intends to keep her for a week, or a month, or a year. She can’t negotiate with him. She can’t even promise not to struggle if he promises not to hurt her.

She obviously knows he’s crazy but she doesn’t know what kind of craziness it is. Does he understand what he’s doing? Does he hate women? Or has he, in his own bizarre misguided abnormal way, fallen in love with her? How much danger is she in?

He keeps raping her but she doesn’t seem to enjoy it. And if he’s going to rape her anyway he’d prefer for her to enjoy it. So he buys himself a book on female sexual response and starts exploring these things women have called erogenous zones. She starts to respond. She starts to respond in a big way. Now she seems to really enjoy the sex.

They still can’t communicate so he can’t know if she really enjoys the sex or not. Maybe she likes the sex but hates him.

She escapes but she escapes into something much worse. She ends up at a club where she meets some nice young Japanese people who offer to help her. Then she gets brutally gang raped by them. Araki raped her plenty of times but he was never brutal and never really hurt her. Now she’s really mess up. She’s in a foreign country, she doesn’t speak the language, she has no money, she’s traumatised by the violent gang rape. What can she do? There is no-one to whom she can turn.

But actually there is one person to whom she can turn. Araki. In his weird twisted way he seemed to want to be kind to her.

So the movie becomes a very unconventional love story, of sorts. Ingrid has no-one else. Araki has no-one else.

This is very much a 1970s movie, willing to explore subject matter which is, in our modern repressive age, now totally of limits. It explores this subject matter with intelligence and subtlety. In a weird kind of way Araki is sympathetic. He doesn’t understand women but he is willing to try to do so. He tries to figure out what drives Ingrid emotionally. He wants to reach her. His way of going about it is clumsy and wrong but in a way it’s sincere. Ingrid doesn’t understand Araki but she finds that maybe she needs him so she’ll have to to figure out what makes him tick. He’s done terrible things to her but she starts to see that he is still a human being and is capable of suffering.

This movie has some slight thematic similarities to William Wyler’s 1965 The Collector, also about a weird young man who kidnaps a girl. The protagonist in that film is just as crazy, but also has a kind of love for his victim.

And there are other plot twists to come, as we discover why Ingrid came to Japan.

The language issue is the core of the film. He wants to tell her how he feels but can only do so in Japanese and she doesn’t understand a word. She wants to communicate her feelings to him but can only do so in Swedish and he doesn’t understand a word. It adds a real poignancy to an offbeat love story.

Christina Lindberg became a very famous nude model around the beginning of the 70s. She was Penthouse Pet of the Month in June 1970. Interestingly enough in the early 70s she was briefly the girlfriend of the King of Sweden. She broke into movies and of all the nude models who made the jump into movies she arguably had the most impressive career, making a number of movies that are extremely good and at least two that were superb (Thriller: A Cruel Picture and Sex and Fury). She wasn’t a great actress but in the right part she could be quite effective and at her best she had an extraordinary intensity.

She’s excellent in The Kyoto Connection. I don’t need to tell you that she’s also stunningly beautiful. There’s a fair bit of nudity. The sex scenes are quite tame. The rape scenes are not graphic - their shock value comes from the emotional impact they have on Ingrid rather than from being graphic.

Ichirô Araki is extremely good as well, managing to make us care about a character against our will.

Miss Lindberg has had mixed fortunes as far as home video is concerned. Most of her movies are available on DVD but they’re mostly from the early days of the format and the transfers are pretty iffy. Thriller: A Cruel Picture seems to be the only one that has had a Blu-Ray release. This is a pity because several of her movies are much better than you might expect, and more than just softcore porn. Sex and Fury and Exposed (Exponerad) are both excellent. And while Anita: Swedish Nymphet is nothing more than softcore erotica it’s very good if that’s the sort of thing you like.

Cheezy Flicks is a company that doesn’t have much of a reputation and it’s easy to see why. This is far from being an impressive transfer. It’s perfectly watchable but the image quality is of the standard that we happily accepted at the beginning of the DVD era but which most viewers will not accept today. It is at least a 16:9 enhanced transfer. For some reason Miss Lindberg’s movies are not making it to Blu-Ray so for the moment this is the best you’re going to get and it’s an interesting obscure movie and I think the DVD is worth buying anyway. The transfer might not be pristine but it’s OK.

The Kyoto Connection is odd and unconventional. There are occasional moments of offbeat humour. It’s obviously erotic. Any movie in which Cristina Lindberg gets naked this often is going to succeed as erotica but it has plenty of engaging weirdness and a love story that is strangely moving. It’s a very very good movie which really deserves a Blu-Ray release and it’s highly recommended.

Friday, 29 April 2022

Mata Hari (1985)

The 1985 Mata Hari starring Sylvia Kristel is a movie that critics find it difficult to discuss without a certain sneering tone. It is after all a Cannon Group film and that in itself is generally held to be synonymous with cinematic schlock. And Sylvia Kristel was after all just a softcore porno star wasn’t she?

And the fact that this is a sexy spy movie with quite a bit of nudity seems to confirm that the sneers were justified.

But in actual fact the idea of making an erotic spy movie based on Mata Hari is perfectly sound. Mata Hari was after all a real-life spy who used sex as her primary tool of the trade. And Sylvia Kristel is appropriately cast - like the real Mata Hari she is Dutch and like the real Mata Hari she has a beauty that seems slightly exotic.

The problem with making a movie about Mata Hari is that everyone knows how the story ends. Everyone knows that Mata Hari was shot as a spy by the French. That doesn’t make her story any less interesting but it does mean that the audience knows from the start that the heroine is doomed.

The real Mata Hari was in fact an extremely interesting woman. She achieved great fame as a dancer in the pre-war period. She was one of the pioneers of modern dance. And she was notable for performances which combined art and eroticism. She posed for nude photographs. As her career as a dancer started to falter she established an extremely successful second career as a courtesan. She was a notorious woman who flaunted her sexual promiscuity and was unembarrassed and unapologetic about being a whore.

What she wasn’t was a super spy. She was manipulated by both the French and German intelligence services but her espionage activities were trivial. She was executed mainly for daring to defy conventional morality. At a time of patriotic hysteria and national security paranoia the French authorities were only too happy to make a scapegoat of Mata Hari.

Fräulein Doktor, whose name was actually Elsbeth Schragmüller, was another real-life lady spy although unlike Mata Hari the Fräulein Doktor was a trained professional agent. The Fräulein Doktor’s career has also been widely fictionalised and sensationalised. She makes an appearance in this movie, as a somewhat sinister psychiatrist who acts as advisor to German military intelligence. Fräulein Doktor is a Freudian and tends to see sex as being the main motivating force for humans.

In the movie Mata Hari (Sylvia Kristel) is clearly more interested in sexual and romantic adventures than in being a spy but the German intelligence service has convinced itself that she can be made use of. The Fräulein Doktor is also keen to introduce Mata Hari to the joys of sapphic loving.

As depicted in this movie Mata Hari is cynically manipulated by spy agencies and by men. It’s not that she’s a stupid woman. Any ordinary person caught in the kind of web that intelligence agencies are capable of spinning would be bewildered by the multiple layers of deceit and betrayal that are the stock-in-trade of professional spies. What really gets Mata Hari in trouble is her complicated romantic entanglements with French spy Ladoux (Oliver Tobias) and German spy Karl (Christopher Cazenove). They’re both dashing and handsome and Mata Hari falls under the sexual spell of both men, and falls in love with both men. She is a woman who has no interest in the rules of conventional morality. She sees no problem in loving two men at the same time.

Mata Hari really doesn’t want to be a spy at all. She is not merely manipulated into being a spy, she is given virtually no choice.

Some movies are just never going to get a break from critics. This movie is a case in point. Its director, Curtis Harrington, has never received the critical respect that he deserved. The movie comes from the Cannon Group so that’s a black mark against it for most critics. And it’s a spy movie that features frequent nudity and sex scenes. Mixing genres still upsets a lot of people. And Sylvia Kristel was too willing to take her clothes off ever to have a chance of being taken seriously as an actresses.

The fact is that this is a spy movie and it’s an erotic movie. It’s an erotic spy movie. Deal with it. It’s a movie for grownups.

There is nothing gratuitous about the nudity or the sex. Mata Hari’s fate had little to do with her trivial spying and everything to do with the fact that she was an unashamed sexual outlaw. She believed in giving in to her sexual urges. The entire plot of the movie hinges on the consequences of Mata Hari’s sexuality. It is absolutely crucial to show that she is swept away by her lust for two men. Had she given the matter careful thought she might well have concluded that it would be healthier to have nothing to do with either man but she’s not capable of rational thought when her appetites take over.

And her dances have to be erotic because Mata Hari’s dances were erotic and she would never have attracted the attention of the spooks had it not been for the eroticism of her performances.

The nudity and the sex are really the core of the story and it’s all done quite tastefully and I really have no idea why some critics adopt a sniggering tone when talking about this film.

In fact when I see so many reviewers who simply dismiss this movie as rubbish I find myself wondering if they saw the same movie I saw. The movie I saw was not just fairly OK, it was extremely good. Seriously, this is a good movie. It was shot in Hungary to keep costs down and whatever money was spent on this movie is up there on the screen. It looks exquisite. It has a slightly hazy soft focus look which is clearly deliberate and I think it works.

The costumes are absolutely gorgeous.

Oliver Tobias and Christopher Cazenove as Mata Hari’s lovers both give fine nuanced performances. Gaye Brown as the Fräulein Doktor is chilling, as she should be.

Sylvia Kristel’s performance works. Mata Hari is supposed to be confused and out of her depth, she’s not supposed to be an ice-cold professional and she’s certainly not supposed to be a kickass action heroine.

Joel Siskin’s script plays fast and loose with the historical details but it has some interesting twists and we’re never quite sure which of Mata Hari’s lovers will betray her, and to Mata Hari that means more than life itself.

I can’t see anything wrong with the way Curtis Harrington directs this film. He appears to me to have known exactly what he was doing. He manages some decent suspense, there are a few action scenes, the sex scenes are sexy, the pacing is fine.

There’s a definite atmosphere of decadence which I really liked. Too many movies with wartime settings get all carried away with the jingoism and the heroic stuff so the decadence of wartime Berlin and Paris in this movie is refreshing.

And did I mention the topless female sword-fighting scene? Mata Hari and another courtesan fight a duel, topless. The scene is actually quite well done. It’s not an epic swordfight because these are not expert swordsman battling it out, they’re prostitutes, but they’re clearly trying to hurt each other.

Despite the topless duel there’s nothing camp about this movie. It’s a serious movie about sex and espionage and betrayal and the price women pay for sexual freedom but it never lectures the viewer. It is a movie for grownups who don’t need to be spoon-fed a message.

Mata Hari combines intrigue, decadence, eroticism and romance in an entertaining package. And yes, I am seriously going to highly recommended this movie.

Sunday, 24 April 2022

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)

Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is very much his homage to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Which was of course an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Herzog was however not interested in remaking Murnau’s film. It merely serves as a kind of point of departure. The tone of Herzog’s movie is very different. Much more melancholy and tragic. And Herzog departs from both Murnau’s and Stoker’s stories in major ways.

There’s presumably no need to rehash the plot of Dracula so I’ll simply mention the ways in which the movie’s plot differs from the novel. In Herzog’s movie it is Renfield (already a servant of Dracula) who sends Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) to Translyvania to arrange for the lease of a house. Jonathan’s wife is Lucy (Isabelle Adjani). Joanathan falls victim to Dracula and returns home a broken man, driven only by his awareness of the danger to Lucy. By the time he reaches home his mind has gone and he no longer recognises her.

His home (which is Dracula’s destination) is in a northern European city, not London.

Dr Van Helsing is the town physician but he’s doddering and ineffectual.

Dracula’s arrival brings plague with it, with the plague clearly being engineered by Dracula (or perhaps plague simply follows vampires). It is the plague that is mostly responsible for spreading fear and despair and social collapse, not Dracula. The plague claims a lot more victims than Dracula and the townspeople are not even aware that there is a vampire in their midst.

The landscape through which Jonathan travels on his way to Dracula’s castle has very much the feel of a Caspar David Friedrich painting and Herzog’s compositions enhance that feel. Man alone in the wilderness, with nature menacing in its remorseless savage beauty.

The landscapes are romantic, in the sense of having the bleakness and cruel beauty that appealed to the Romantic Movement. Wild mountain seascapes, mist-shrouded seascapes in which the sea is more grey than blue, desolate beaches. Although it should be borne in mind that Herzog claims to have no interest in the Romantics and feels more in tune with the late Middle Ages. The landscapes in this movie are glowering and oppressive. The interiors are claustrophobic and stifling.

A major problem with gothic horror movies in the late 60s and 70s is that both actors and actresses looked like actors and actresses in period costumes. The men in particular looked wrong with their 60s/70s hair cuts. The women tended to look like models dressed for a fashion shoot. And young actors and actresses were unable to completely inhabit 19th century characters. They seemed out of period. That’s much less of a problem with this film. The cast members do behave in a convincingly 19th century manner, slightly stiff and very formal.

Isabelle Adjani looks very 19th century. Her hairstyles look like hairstyles from paintings and photographs of the period. With her pale skin, dark hair, and with her dark but subtle eye makeup, she looks at times like a 19th century goth girl. But she is very clearly a 19th century goth girl, straight out of the pages of a 19th century gothic novel.

A major challenge with a vampire movie is to persuade the viewer to identify with the vampire hunters rather than the vampire. Since Christopher Lee’s first appearance as Dracula vampires had seemed sexy and glamorous. Of course that’s partly an inherent feature of the vampire. The vampire became a popular figure in western culture at the same time as the Byronic hero. That’s no coincidence. Both were creations of the Romanic Movement. The Byronic hero was a sexual outlaw, as was the vampire (the erotic overtones were present in vampire fiction at least as early as 1797 when Coleridge wrote his poem Christabel. Vampires and Byronic heroes were outsiders, defying the rules of conventional society. Vampire hunters by contrast have always seemed to be humourless enforcers of the social rules.

Herzog avoids this problem (as Murnau had avoided it in 1922) by making his vampire truly monstrous but in an ugly repulsive way. A female viewer might have been quite willing to have Christopher Lee bite her but she was hardly likely to fantasise about being ravished by Klaus Kinski’s Dracula.

And Herzog drains all the eroticism out of the story (and there is eroticism in Stoker’s novel although it’s handled obliquely). Herzog was making a horror movie, not a supernatural love story. Except for one crucial moment, which is disturbingly erotic.

The problem of unsympathetic vampire hunters is solved by having Lucy the chief vampire hunter. But if you think that means that this is a feminist girlpower movie think again. What gives Lucy her power is her faith, her purity and her love for her husband. Lucy is a woman of the 19th century. Her ambition in life is to be a good wife. She becomes Dracula’s chief opponent because there is no-one else to do the job, and because she has studied up on vampires and she knows that a pure-hearted woman is a dangerous opponent for a vampire. The men are incapable of combating Dracula effectively not because they are weak or stupid but because they lack a woman’s simple faith.

A major theme of the novel is the clash between the decadent aristocracy (Dracula) and the rising middle class. Another major theme is the clash between science and superstition, with Stoker obviously on the side of science. Van Helsing uses religious symbols to combat Dracula but he uses science and technology as well. In Herzog’s movie science (as represented by Dr Van Helsing) is ineffectual. The only hope of defeating the vampire is Lucy’s simple faith.

Kinski’s Dracula is sympathetic in the sense of being a tragic figure. He knows he is cut off from everything that a human being takes for granted, including both death and love. He is tragic, but he is not a figure with whom an audience is going to identify. We want to see him destroyed, as much for his sake as for everyone else’s. It is one of the very rare vampire movies in which we actually buy the idea that the destruction of the vampire will be a blessing for him.

What’s immediately apparent is that his movie bears no similarity in theme, style or one to any other 1970s vampire movie. This is not the cozy central Europe of Hammer horror. There’s virtually no trace of the eroticism of 1970s vampire movies. There’s no comic relief. There’s no glamour. It’s interesting that Herzog has never seen the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula. In fact he seems to have seen very few vampire movies which is probably why his film seems so dazzlingly original.

Herzog’s movie has a strange air of unreality. The movie does not take place in our world. It takes place in a kind of dream world, or nightmare world.

The Shout! Factory Blu-Ray offers a nice transfer. There are two audio commentaries featuring Herzog, one in English and one in German with subtitles. Both are worthwhile.

Vey highly recommended.