Sunday, July 20, 2014

Nosferatu a Venezia (1988)

... aka: Nosferatu in Venice
... aka: Nosferatu: Vampire in Venice
... aka: Vampire in Venice

Directed by:
Mario Caiano (uncredited)
Augusto Caminito
Luigi Cozzi (uncredited)
Klaus Kinski (uncredited)
Maurizio Lucidi (uncredited)

There's no other way to start this review than to delve into the disastrous production history to this Italian semi-"sequel" to German director Werner Herzog's acclaimed NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979). In fact, this may be the mother of all troubled film productions. Producer / writer Augusto Caminito (who you will begin to pity as this story goes forward) originally hired director Maurizio Lucidi. He shot a few crowd scenes in Venice before the script had even been completed, but Caminito had a change of heart and decided to go with a new director, even though contractually he still had to pay Lucidi his full salary first. He then hired Pasquale Squitieri, who was best known for a series of profitable Euro-crime films, to direct and write the picture. However, Squitieri's ambitious screenplay exceeded the budgetary limitations, so Caminito decided to stop working with him (also having to shell out his full salary as well). Caminito then hurriedly hired a third director, Mario Caiano (who had made the minor Gothic horror classic NIGHTMARE CASTLE with Barbara Steele two decades earlier) so shooting could immediately start. Star Klaus Kinski was supposed to reprise his vampire character from the 1979 film, but the actor (sporting long white hair and [sometimes] rat-like teeth) refused to go bald or wear the same ugly / pale monster makeup, which explains why the vampire looks nothing like he did in Herzog's film. Even worse, Kinski got into a violent dispute with Caiano the first day of filming, threw a mirror at his face and called him a "hack" and "a shitty director." Caiano walked off set and refused to come back unless Kinski apologized to him. Needless to say, that never happened. Caiano would become the third director to leave the project... and the third to take his full salary with him.

Facing disaster and a possible lawsuit from an Italian TV network who helped co-produce the picture, Caminito (who had almost no experience in the director's chair) then decided to take the helm himself so he wouldn't have to pay a fourth director. Luigi Cozzi played film doctor, was a consultant and was assistant director to Caminito through much of the shoot (all sans credit), though he actually shot much of the film on his own. Aside from compromising the vampire's horrific look, Kinski caused numerous problems throughout the shoot, including being rude / insulting toward nearly the entire cast and crew, throwing the film completely off schedule, threatening to quit multiple times, refusing to rehearse his scenes, physically assaulting several female cast members and demanding one of the already-cast actresses (Amanda Sandrelli) be fired. The producers became so desperate after awhile they had no choice but to cater to every one of the insane, temperamental actor's ridiculous wishes, including allowing him to go off with a small crew and shoot over 10 hours of footage not even in the script. Of all that footage, which was little more than Kinski wandering around the streets of Venice at dawn, only about 3 minutes worth actually ended up in the finished film.

Not surprisingly, this whole thing is a huge mess. The plot only occasionally makes sense, the continuity is sporadic at best, the pacing fluctuates from being too slow to too rushed and the characters are thinly-drawn, uninteresting and many of them disappear from the film for long stretches of time after being established as protagonists early on. The only thing the film really does a good job at is capturing the appropriate mood, though to its credit it does quite an exceptional job at that. Thanks to cinematographer Tonino Nardi, there are lots of beautifully composed shots of the canals, the mist-covered cobblestone walkways, the old buildings, the sky at various times of day and night and birds flying around in slow motion. Often these shots are used to tie the film together when the continuity is going right off the rails. Scenes seem to cut abruptly at many points before completion and the film always reverts to the same thing: cutting to a lovely image of the city in an attempt to keep us from noticing. Luigi Ceccarelli's music score; sort of an elegant-classical-meets-80s-synth score ("inspired by" Vangelis), is also quite interesting. Most of this film's accolades end right there.

Things open with wonderfully moody shots of Professor Catalano (Christopher Plummer) solemnly standing at the steer of a small boat floating through the canals; often cast in shadow along a hazy orange sky. Catalano also narrates; explaining that he's dedicated his whole life to the study of vampires and that he's come to Venice at the request of a young princess who wants him to help investigate her families cursed history. Upon arrival, Catalano meets beautiful Helietta Canins (Barbara De Rossi), the princess, who wastes no time showing him the cellar crypt of the family mansion where a long-dead descendant rests. She believes it's Nosferatu in the crypt, but he supposedly fled the city 200 years earlier because of the plague so the Professor is skeptical. As it turns out, Helietta is correct. The family hold a séance with help from a powerful medium (Clara Colosimo), Nosferatu is resurrected, comes crawling out of his crypt, walks the beach and stumbles upon some oddly cooperative gypsies, who let him feast on a young gypsy girl to give her immortality. The linking of the gypsies to the vampire is never explained and after this brief scene the idea is dropped altogether, which is a recurring theme with this film as you will soon see.

Other characters are introduced but none of them are developed. In fact, this movie does such a terrible job introducing them that we have no clue who any of them really are. Donald Pleasence plays Don Alvise, a cowardly priest and family confidant who basically just stands around in the background in a low-key fashion until his final scene allows him to rant, rave and wildly overact. His character serves no real purpose. Yorgo Voyagis (from DAMNED IN VENICE [1978]) is Dr. Barneval, another family friend who seems to be the romantic interest of Helietta. He and Helietta go to a costume ball together and romantically kiss... and right in front of Helietta's friend Uta (Elvire Audray), who also happens to be the doctor's wife. Uta seems to have her own lover (Giuseppe Mannajuolo) on the side but no one seems to really care one way or another. I couldn't make heads or tails of any of these people or their relationships since they never once bother to explain it to us. Maria Clementina Cumani Quasimodo plays Helietta's grandmother, who lurks around acting sinister until the vampire pushes her out a window so she's impaled on an iron fence; a fate parallel to that of a priest (Mickey Knox) seen in one of several brief flashbacks.

Helietta is established as being the reincarnation of Princess Letizia; Nosferatu's lost love, but once he finally bites her, the actress strangely disappears from most of the rest of the movie. The film then switches its attentions over to Helietta's kid sister Maria, who's played by Anne Knecht, the replacement for the actress Kinski got fired. Knecht was not an actress; she was the girlfriend of Voyagis and was on the set visiting him when Kinski decided to "cast" her in this film... never mind the fact she was black!! The vampire mythology here is different than usual. Nosferatu is impervious to stakes through the heart, can walk around in daylight, and handle crucifixes, casts a shadow in a mirror and only has to sleep for 24 hours every 24 days. None of this bodes well with the death-obsessed vamp, who apparently wants nothing more than to be put out of his misery. Professor Catalano explains that there are really only two ways to kill a vampire. The first is for them to drink mercury; "the only natural element capable of killing a vampire." The second is through the love of a "consenting virgin" (?!); which can put his soul to rest for "a thousand years." This is where the character of Maria supposedly factors in. She leaps from a bell tower, is swooped up by Kinski and he carries her through the sky Superman-style (!) back to the crumbling abandoned mansion he's been squatting in. All of this ends up having absolutely nothing at all to do with this film's frustrating non-ending.

Plummer seems to be the only one of the trio of name value stars trying to give an actual performance and his Van Helsing-esque Professor is set up strongly in the first half of the film with a potential redemption / hero arc. The character is dying and has spent his whole life studying and looking for vampires and now he's finally stumbled across a real one in the twilight of his life. So what do the filmmakers ultimately do with him? After Nosferatu makes a cross burn his hand, the Professor simply gives up and leaves town defeated without even bothering to confront the vampire a second time! Several of the other characters then decide to try to stop Nosferatu. Though four of them head to the castle, we only actually see what happens to one of them as the other three vanish into thin air to apparently join De Rossi, Audray and Plummer in the magical land of Anticlimaxville.

Much of the production information in this review is from the book Italian Horror Movies, written by Cozzi and Antonio Tentori. The section on this film also explains a troubling incident between Kinski and one of the actresses. Though the female half isn't named, it's obviously Ms. Audray since part of the scene actually described remains in the finished film. According to Cozzi, the script called for Kinski to grab his victim and bite her on the neck. Instead, he charged at her "like a wild animal," actually beat her up (for real!), ripped off all her clothes and undergarments and started biting her right on the vagina! Audray fled the set crying and Kinski maniacally screamed "Bitch!" at her as she ran off. Afterward, Audray understandably refused to do any more scenes with the crazed actor, which may explain why she disappears from the rest of the movie. Kinski also apparently manhandled De Rossi during their nocturnal "love sequence" and went beyond the call of duty by ripping off her nightgown, fondling her crotch and then squeezing her breasts very hard. This may also explain why De Rossi is m.i.a. through a large portion of the film.

After debuting at the Venice Film Festival to scathing reviews in 1988, the film ended up flopping in its subsequent Italian theatrical release and played only limited engagements elsewhere. There was no official release here in America to my knowledge, but an English-dubbed version was released elsewhere, including in the UK on the Vestron label under the title Vampire in Venice. It was also released on VHS in numerous other countries under titles like "Dracula in Venice," "Nosferatu, Prince of Shadows," "Nosferatu, the Return" and "Vampires in Venice." Germany is one of the few countries to get the film in reasonably good shape on DVD (on the Midnight Movies label) under the title Nosferatu in Venedig.

1 comment:

vwstieber said...

Coming to US DVD in September:


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