There’s something about the light, the weather and the landscape in Herzog’s film that makes it very dear to me. Very close to my experience.
Because he shoots with natural light, because he uses real locations, we never doubt that these people and these places exist, and by extension, that these events are real. Inherently, consciously or subconsciously, I think we recognise reality – no matter how much we freely suspend belief when we want to, when it’s necessary – and it adds something. A weight of some kind. The lack of stylisation brings us closer to the film. Castle Dracula is not a Production Designers gothic wet dream, but something real. Something that has visible, tangible history. Something which resonates on a different level to a built set (no matter how well researched, or how well designed). It is something built brick by brick, weathered and aged by time, and somewhere deep inside an audience recognises that, and responds. We believe in it.
I certainly do. But then I think the film touches other specific things for me.
I was an only child that fell in love with Hammer films, because I couldn’t take contemporary set horror movies. I was a nervous, over imaginative child. American Werewolf scared the shit out of me – I didn’t see past him tearing the leg off that deer in the forest.
But I was interested in Monsters. I was interested in the Paranormal. I was interested by Vampires and Werewolves and Ghosts. But the Gothic trappings of Hammer, spoke more clearly to me. Resonated – not least because the period setting provided just a little distance – but also because they were beautiful to me. They were melodramatic and that’s what I responded to. People often complain that horror/gothic etc in novels and in film, lack character depth. But in horror – in fantasy in general – everything is character. The world is the character. The mood is the character. The way light plays on dead trees in necromantic forests, the way the purple Victorian wall paper sets off the light blue gown and pale skin of a woman awaiting the vampire at her window, everything is character in these films/books. Everything in those films (and the films of James Whale, Georges Franju, Val Lewton and many more) spoke to me. Moved me. Affected me. Meant something to me.
Now, later in my life I see Herzog’s Nosferatu and it moves me just the same. But why? It’s not creating quite the same baroque, heightened sensuality of look and feel of a Hammer film – nor the beautiful deep expressionist shadows of James Whale or Jacques Tourneur. But it resonates deeply. Why?
Perhaps because it is the same material, but filtered through an older eye. I’m not the same seething mass of hormones and emotion I was as a child (not quite the same anyway).
But the reality of the world Herzog creates for the film hits home harder now than I think it would have had I seen it as a child. And I think I know why.
I think it is because now, when I think of horror films and fantasy, I think about them in way I instinctively believed in them as a child. As a child I watched Hammer and Universal, and Val Lewton and so on. But I imagined their characters, their creatures, their monsters in MY world. I imagined them existing on the backstreets of the mining town in the North East of England where I grew up. I imagined them in the landscape that I knew, and grew up with, the mix of dying industrial and beautiful, if harsh, countryside that surrounded us. Reality and my imagination as a child mixed and mingled, were processed then, and are now in my memory, as one.
And the landscape I grew up in looks a lot like that in Herzog’s movie. The greens of the land, the low grey skies, the buffeting winds, there’s something dismal in the look of Herzog’s film though he finds the beauty – that is 100% my memory of the North East of England. The landscape has fantastic drama about it, great hills and rock outcrops. It is littered with ruins; castles and abbeys and the like. The Roman Wall runs across it from one coast to the other. It is bleak and it is beautiful, mysterious and dramatic. And when I watch Herzog’s film of Nosferatu, I see the world of my childhood onscreen... or at least a world that I recognize. A landscape that is imprinted on me. A dreary light that says ‘home’. (I won’t pretend it has mountains – it doesn’t, don’t get me wrong, although my childhood mind would have put them there).
It’s this aspect of Herzog’s film; the landscape and climate of Northern Europe that brings it particularly close to me I think, makes me love it even more...
It’s probably what I respond to most in Polanski’s Macbeth. Cul-De-Sac was shot up there too if you want to see more of how the North East looks on screen...