Nosferatu, The Vampyre

It’s not my habit to binge-watch good movies and particularly not movies by Werner Herzog. I usually need a moment to let those sink in. They can exhaust me but fill me with hope and, having found something like that, I try to treat it a precious and avoid overdoing it.

But, today, I went on a bit of a Herzog kick. I watched Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Grizzly Man, and Nosferatu, The Vampire. As you can probably imagine, under current conditions, Nosferatu resonated the hardest. It really sort of hit the moment on the nose.

Current mood.

If you’re unfamiliar with this version, basically, it’s Dracula with an emphasis on Dracula as plague. It has some other interesting elements, subordinating Van Hesling and making Lucy a much more active character. This is, I think, really important.

Horror is a fundamentally feminine and often feminist genre of film. The genre is built around the female rather than the male gaze. The best horror movies understand this and bring it out, while the worst horror movies attempt to work against the genre’s natural tendencies.

There’s certain recurring tropes in horror. One is — if people just listened to the girl, they’d avoid a lot of trouble. Instead, the men usually ignore her warnings, call her crazy, tell her she’s being hysterical, and, as a direct result, everyone gets killed. This goes way back (Cassandra, at least) and it’s a vital part of so many horror-shows. When you get right down to brass tacks, a lot of horror is basically about white men in authority ignoring female or minority advice, refusing to listen to anything except what they foolishly term “reason”, and getting a lot of people, themselves often included, killed because of this stupidity. In many cases, the villain is using gas-lighting to manipulate those around them. If horror-show has a concept of original sin, it is not listening to the woman, the worker, the child, or the native.

The horror of not being listened to. This is a common feature of the horror-show and of feminist fiction. The examples are innumerable. The overlap is there.

The transformative horrors of vampires and werewolves often present the monster as a sort of liberation. It’s often treated more as romance than horror.

Much of the horror of the vampire –the sexy rather than the rodent version of Count Dracula– emerges because the vampire is just about the best option going. I mean, sure, he will drink your blood but that beats a loveless marriage to that other toe-headed dope. You lose your soul? So what? You’re going to lose your soul to a life of dull respectability anyway. Have you ever noticed that Dracula actually listens? He makes a lot of eye-contact. He’s also quite charming. He has his problems, sure, but being boring isn’t one of them.

And this goes for Dracula-like characters too. Like look at Christopher Lee in City of the Dead. He’s the only character who takes the young woman student, her research, and her discipline seriously. Her boyfriend and her brother are completely dismissive of her and her work. While I think this movie attempts to make a different point –one about slippery manipulative professors– and the film certainly requires an update to give more agency to the women characters, to the modern viewer, this movie can’t help but make the point that Christopher Lee is easily the most attractive option. That might be where the horror lies.

Satan might be your best option.

The romance is in the transformation.

With the vampire, this is a pretty appealing transformation. Since we’ve stopped valuing souls quite so highly, this transformation becomes even more appealing still. You get to live forever, stay the age you are now, and become predator rather than prey. No one really wants to live as docile prey-cattle for the upper classes. The vampire lets you lean in and join the aristocracy. The vampire is more opportunity than horror. You could charge people a lot of money to become vampires. It’s hard to believe they’re just giving it away! The vampire is not a horror so much as a secular fantasy of psychopathic self-improvement.

But even with less appealing transformations, like the werewolf, there is still some sense of liberation. If you look at the charming movie from 1989, My Mom is a Werewolf, becoming a werewolf really livens up Mom’s life. She engages in bizarre and erotic adventures. Her sexuality is unleashed on the world as a monster. It’s all very dangerous and there’s the usual lip-service to family values and whatnot but her lycanthropy is also very freeing.

When transformation becomes horrifying rather than romantic, it is about men transforming women into their idea of women. Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, so on and so forth. This terrible transformation is often not from a woman into a monster but from a beautiful monster into some man’s idea of a woman — whether he believes her to be an incubator, a servant, or some other docile receptacle for his fantasies. A horror-show on this subject would be more like The Little Mermaid than My Mom is a Werewolf. Mermaids being turned into women by men is more scary than women turning into mermaids.

The best horror consciously understands these things. The worst of horror tries to make the genre into a spectacle of dead women, male power fantasy, and morality tales about virtue. Some horror-shows just totally miss the point. Some of these end up making it in spite of themselves. Others are a little more slippery.

The fucking English strike me as particularly slippery. They seemed to have found a way to pay lip-service to egalitarian principles while using the motions to undercut their purpose. Fleabag, for example, seems to me, to be a trick. It makes fun of women with some of the worse tropes and stereotypes going but alibis this with a woman protagonist. Imagine that show with a male lead and think about the utter contempt it has for its secondary women characters. How it regards adult female sexuality. It’s kinda fucked up is all I’m saying.

But we’re talking about horror here. So let’s look at Netflix’s version of Dracula, brought to us by Steven Moffat. On the surface, the show made a brave choice. It changed Dr. Van Helsing into a woman. There’s nothing wrong with that decision in itself. I can think of plenty of movies that have benefited from similar changes and many more that would. I’m not against changing the gender of beloved characters. I have no problem with that. I do have some problems with this specific instance. I think this is a regressive stunt.

You see, the show wants to bring out some erotic tension between the doctor and the vampire. I’m in favor of that. I just think that this tension should have been queer tension. It should have been homoerotic tension. What changing Van Helsing into a woman did, in this case, was make the story more heteronormative. Turning her into some sort of science nun on top of that, also made the character into some sort of sexist horror super-trope of masculine virgin. They didn’t make a woman centered version of Dracula so much as they tried to make a straight version of Hannibal. Now, I might have too high an opinion of female perversity, but I think that two hot men covered in blood, with a lot of sexual tension between them, might be a little more geared to a woman’s gaze and erotic imagination than this sort of very straight and wooden fantasy. And horror should prioritize a woman’s perception.

Now, having said all that, one has to remember that horror is not meant to comfort. It’s meant to horrify. It’s an often complicated genre whose works can often be read in a variety of contradictory ways. But the horror-show horrifies best when it has a feminized perception or is built to accommodate one. Horror-shows that treat their women characters seriously, bringing them to the front and center of the story, is not some case of ‘wokeness run amok’ or over-politicization of the genre. Done right, that’s when the horror-show gets scary.

Herzog does a tremendous job of this with his Nosferatu. He operates naturally within the interrelated aesthetics and politics of the horror-show. He stains against none of it. He finds the natural and correct shape of the characters and of the vampire.

Van Helsing is reduced to a cipher, only really notable because he, like the rest of the male doctors, refuses to listen to Lucy — the one person who actually knows what is happening. Herzog completely rethinks this character’s traditional scientific heroism. As one should.

Dracula is an inhuman monster. A personification of plague. It’s an image that resonates. Not just of the monster but the peculiar little details that suddenly ring too true. The fevers. The madman who worships him and runs off to spread the plague. The plague ship that Dracula arrives on with his army of diseased rats. It all rings too true.

The Princess Dementer

It remains a horror movie. Nosferatu is not about victory. You do not kill the monster and return to status quo. There’s no heroism here,. There’s just a blundering forward. The best outcome for anyone is death. The film is bleak as fuck. That’s how I like my horror.

But the most unsettling thing about this movie and, perhaps its greatest accomplishment, is that it makes eternal life seem much less appealing. Living forever and having power is not treated as the trite secular fantasy of vampire romances. Eternal life becomes viscerally unsettling. It become terrifying. Not because one needs to shed a littl blood to achieve it and drink much more to maintain it. These things are also the stuff of life. And it’s not because one loses their soul. The transformation is terrifying because one gains so much time. Time is the curse. Time is hell. Vampires have nothing but time. They have nothing but life.

The rest of us? We have too many vampires and not enough time. But we also have love. That will have to be enough.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s