Nosferatu in Venice

Nosferatu in Venice (Augusto Caminito, 1988)

aka Nosferatu a Venezia aka Vampire In Venice

Now, here’s a largely forgotten piece of Euro-horror! The much maligned “sequel” to Werner Herzog’s acclaimed NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979) which once again stars Klaus Kinski as the title character. Frequently dismissed by horror fans, NOSFERATU IN VENICE is actually a rather unique film with an interesting history behind it. For Augusto Caminito, the producer behind such disposable genre flicks as MURDER-ROCK (1984), THE KISS OF THE COBRA (1986) and THE MINES OF KILIMANJARO (1986), producing a sequel to Herzog’s acclaimed masterpiece, with Kinski reprising his famous performance as Nosferatu, meant an opportunity to gain respect, international success and a great deal of money. Unfortunately, Caminito’s ambitious project would run into a series of difficulties and delays before finally being completed. Indeed, NOSFERATU IN VENICE is just as (if not more) memorable for its complicated production history as it is for being a modern-day sequel to a classic. The finished result is undeniably flawed and occasionally frustrating but at the same time it remains a fascinating and compelling work.

As the title indicates, the setting is the gorgeous city of Venice, where Professor Paris Catalano (Christopher Plummer), the world’s leading authority on vampires, arrives after being summoned by Helietta Canins (Barbara De Rossi), a beautiful Italian princess. Helietta is desperate to consult with Catalano because down in the centuries-old family crypt on the Canins estate, she has discovered a tomb that is tightly secured with iron bats. According to a family legend, a vampire was buried alive in this tomb, and Helietta is convinced that this vampire is none other than the legendary Nosferatu. But Catalano, who has dedicated most of his life to studying Nosferatu, doesn’t believe the princess’ theory and maintains that the vampire left Venice during the plague 200 years ago. Nevertheless, all traces of him stop after that and Catalano strongly advises Helietta against opening the tomb.

In the meantime, Helietta’s devout, old grandmother (Maria Cumani Quasimodo) and the trusted family priest, Don Alvise (Donald Pleasence), are not too happy to have Professor Catalano snooping around in their home. The grandmother even tries to prevent Catalano from learning that Nosferatu had been in the Canins estate before; 200 years earlier when he vampirised their ancestor Letizia, whose portrait bears an uncanny resemblance to Helietta.

Eager to prove that it really is Nosferatu who rests in the tomb with iron bats, Helietta–along with Catalano and family friend Dr. Barneval (Yorgo Voyagis) and his wife Uta (Elvire Audray)–approach a medium (Clara Colosimo) to conduct a séance. But as the medium summons Nosferatu (Klaus Kinski), she succeeds in awakening him in his grave far, far away among a group of gypsies who worship him. One of the gypsy women uses her crystal ball to show Nosferatu the face of the woman who has called him out of his sleep, and he is stunned to see Helietta, the dead-ringer for his old love Letizia. It seems that what the immortal Nosferatu really wants more than anything is to die so that he can finally be put to rest. But this can only happen if a virgin surrenders herself to him completely. Promptly, Nosferatu travels to Venice, where he intends to invade the Canins estate once again and make Helietta his…

In the late 1980s, Italian horror films were a dying breed, with most of the genre efforts being dumbed down to toothless kiddie-horrors in the vein of Lamberto Bava’s awful GRAVEYARD DISTURBANCE (1987). As such, one could argue that NOSFERATU IN VENICE came about at the wrong time. The Italian horror industry was in undeniably poor shape at this point but for producer Augusto Caminito, finding the right man to direct would prove a far bigger obstacle. According to reports, Maurizio Lucidi, director of the Venetian-set Hitchcockian giallo THE DESIGNATED VICTIM (1971), was hired prior to the script having been completed. However, he only got to film a few crowd scenes in Venice before Caminito decided he needed a different director and let Lucidi go; though not before paying him his full salary. He was replaced by Pasquale Squitieri, who had previously directed the notable Euro crime effort GANG WAR IN NAPLES (1972) and the more serious CLARETTA (1984) about the life of Mussolini’s mistress Claretta Petacci. But Squitieri too was fired (but again, was paid in full) because the screenplay he had written was deemed to expensive to shoot! Finally, experienced B-movie veteran Mario Caiano was brought in to direct. Caiano had good experience with horror and thrillers – having helmed the gothic Barbara Steele chiller NIGHTMARE CASTLE (1965), the occult thriller SHADOW OF ILLUSION (1970) and the Freudian giallo EYE IN THE LABYRINTH (1972). But Caiano got off on the wrong foot with the notoriously difficult Kinski as the two of them reportedly got into a violent argument. Kinski refused to work with Caiano; leaving Caminito with no choice but to fire Caiano as well and once again, paying his full salary.

With so much money-wasting, the film was turning into a complete disaster, prompting Caminito to take the director’s seat himself. But as a producer and a screenwriter, Caminito had no directorial experience and had to be assisted by Luigi Cozzi, otherwise better known as a protégé of Dario Argento and for having directed a handful of films of his own. Even Kinski himself is said to have directed himself in some scenes. And, being true to himself, Kinski caused yet another change of plans when he refused to shave his head bald and wear the same rat-like teeth and pale vampire make-up that he had in the original NOSFERATU. The result is that he looks nothing like he did in Herzog’s film; instead sporting long, white hair, free of any paling make-up and wearing more elegant, baroque clothes. This look makes Kinski resemble a kind of punk rock horror version of Mozart but this – coupled with his trademark piercing, maniacal stare – sure has him looking pretty damn impressive!

It goes without saying that with different directors wanting different thing, and a frequently changing script, the chaos of this creative process is transferred onto the screen. The finished film is at times quite messy, reflecting the conflicting visions of the various creative forces at work behind the camera. But one could hardly expect anything else either given the circumstances of the production. And there is still much to savour in NOSFERATU IN VENICE in spite of these problems. It begins very strongly with a haunting opening scene of a hunting party where a bat is shot. It continues with stunning images of the arrival of Professor Catalano, travelling by boat through the mist-shrouded canals of Venice while he relates his life-long search of Nosferatu in voice-over. It’s a gorgeous and extremely atmospheric scene that sets a nice tone for the film; with Catalano’s subsequent arrival on the estate and the religious grandmother’s nervousness and reluctance towards his presence helping to make things more interesting. The sequence where Helietta and Catalano descend down to the dark underground crypt to study the vampire coffin is another stylishly shot and atmospheric moment that creates a dark, eerie mood. And the séance too, which awakens Nosferatu from his long sleep, is deliciously stylish.

But after a promising first half hour, the film starts to loose its way. Plot points that don’t really lead to anything are introduced (that concerning Nosferatu staying among a group of gypsies is both irrelevant and idiotic), and we are subjected to several carelessly made sequences. The scene where Nosferatu forces his way into the Canins estate like some kind of invincible superhero is pretty embarrassing, and the moment when the sealed coffin in the underground crypt is opened is an utter disappointment thanks to some pitiful effects work, plus it doesn’t make any damn sense. Another terrible scene finds Helietta’s younger sister disguising herself as their grandmother (complete with wig and rubber mask) in order to test the loyalty of the young man she’s dating. No description could possibly sum up how laughably inane this scene plays out, so I won’t even attempt to try, but be sure to know that you will cringe when you see this! However, the absolute worst moment in the film comes when one character attempts to commit suicide by jumping from a bell tower, only to be rescued by a flying Nosferatu! We then see them flying away over the city of Venice; a terribly cheesy and cringe-worthy scene created with some laughably unconvincing optical effects.

Yet, in between these bland, awful scenes, there are some effective and terrifically stylish moments that make a great impression. The tragic and highly ironic ending (which I won’t spoil) works surprisingly well, and we also get an intense flashback scene in which a trio of manic priests try to shun Nosferatu from the Canins estate, only to get violently blown out the window and fall onto a viciously spiked metal fence that gorily impales them.

The look of the film too is absolutely stunning and the many arresting visuals help to at least partially smooth over the more bland material and confused narrative. Being filmed in the ever-gorgeous city of Venice really adds a lot to the proceedings, and cinematographer Tonino Nardi delivers some truly beautiful shots, such as Nosferatu travelling by boat through the misty Venetian canals. Special mention must also go to the atmospheric image of Nosferatu’s giant shadow being reflected on the wall of a street corner as he pursues Helietta through the streets of Venice; likely an homage to the style of F.W. Murnau original silent version of NOSFERATU (1922). Further enhancing the mood is the terrific and haunting musical score; credited to Luigi Ceccarelli but “based on” the album ‘Mask’ by Vangelis, according to the credits. Which is a polite way of saying ripped-off, I guess. Either way it’s a beautiful score and really lifts the atmosphere.

So, there you have it! Some scenes are excellent and drenched in atmosphere, whereas others fall curiously flat. It seems bizarre how the quality can swing so radically from scene to scene but this is no doubt a result of too many different people having had a hand in the direction. And while it’s difficult to precisely determine who was responsible for the good parts and who was responsible for the bad ones, it does seem fair to assume that Augusto Caminito must have had some sort of eye for visual details, as many of the earlier films he produced certainly looked stylish.

Another serious problem with NOSFERATU IN VENICE is how poorly several of the characters are introduced and developed. This is especially true of Helietta’s younger sister, Maria (played by the exotic-looking Anne Knecht in what appears to be her only film role). She is never really introduced and only appears fleetingly; usually in the background without speaking. The Maria character is so poorly written and conceived that she hardly registers as a screen presence at all, until she quite suddenly becomes significant to the plot in the last third of the film. Of course, this abrupt shift from peripheral window dressing to last-minute leading lady just doesn’t work. By the time the character is finally pulled out of the shadows, less attentive viewers are likely to scratch their heads and wonder who on earth she is supposed to be and what her place in the narrative is. This terrible handling of what is actually a pivotal character is just inexcusably lazy! With that said, the characters of Dr. Barneval and his ditzy, blonde wife, Uta, are also introduced rather poorly and we never really learn anything about them. Barneval appears to have some sort of crush on Helietta but this is never really elaborated on and poor Uta is shown to be completely disposable. The worst thing about all of this is that there was a perfect opportunity to introduce all these characters in a more satisfactory manner: once Professor Catalano has arrived on the Canins estate, there is a scene where he dines with Helietta, Maria and the Barnevals. Why not include a short bit where Catalano is formally introduced to these characters, thus giving the audience a better understanding of who they are? Certainly, the makers should have prioritized this over useless scenes of gypsy dancing and fake-looking flying!

It should also be mentioned that even though the film is set in the present day of 1988, it often feels as if the plot is unfolding in the 1800s. This is because the Canins estate is extremely old-fashioned, as are many of the timeless costumes worn by the actors. The impression is further strengthened by the fact that it all takes place in Venice during the carnival season. Only occasionally is this illusion shattered; by the sudden appearance by a motor-driven boat for example. But the one moment where we are really reminded that this is the 1980s is a truly bizarre scene that comes out of nowhere: suddenly Elvire Audray’s Uta is seen walking through the misty Venetian streets wearing a big pink sweater, white leather boots, a tiny white skirt, big earrings and a hideously ugly silver handbag. It’s as if she walked straight out of a bad 80s fashion catalogue and into this film by mistake. And not long after, Nosferatu starts hurriedly chasing after poor Uta. Yes, the otherwise so graceful vampire is suddenly running after a blonde woman in bad 1980s clothes at a great speed! This is without a doubt the most absurd and head-scratching moment in the entire film! It makes for such a huge contrast to the rest of the film’s look that one can’t help but laugh.

The cast list contains many impressive names but not everyone can be said to come away with their dignity intact. Heading the cast is of course, Klaus Kinski in his penultimate film role. He apparently only agreed to reprise the role of Nosferatu after Caminito agreed to finance his dream project, KINSKI PAGANINI (1989), which the actor directed and starred in the following year. So he took the role, like so many times before in his career, only for the money and he clearly wasn’t particularly invested in the part. Kinski’s performance largely just floats on him being himself, which more or less works because Kinski is Kinski and he brings a tremendous intensity and interest to the screen even when he’s slumming it. His impressive and creepy look certain helps too. Interestingly, Nosferatu is depicted as a pretty untraditional vampire that can walk around in the daylight, has a reflection in the mirror, and remains unaffected by crosses. Indeed, the church and all its symbols are shown to be completely powerless against Nosferatu as he even kills one of his victims inside a chapel. And although he is described as a being of great evil by Catalano in his opening monologue and by the medium in her summoning, Nosferatu is actually portrayed as far more tragic than evil, just like he was in Herzog’s film.

As for the rest of the cast, there’s the always loveable Donald Pleasence, who, like Kinski, is just floating on his own persona since his character isn’t really given much to do here except ramble on about God in a gravely voice. Unlike Kinski and Pleasence, Christopher Plummer actually puts some effort into his performance and, hence, comes off a lot more dignified but the Catalano character (who is really a modern-day Van Helsing at the core) is not very fleshed out in the script and his rushed exit fails to make much sense.

The Italian supporting cast is interesting, if somewhat of a mixed bag. The underrated Barbara De Rossi is hauntingly beautiful and quite effective in the leading role of Helietta; managing to convey her involuntary attraction to Nosferatu very well. Yorgo Voyagis and Elvire Audray are pretty wasted as the Barnevals, and it is hard to evaluate poor Anne Knecht’s performance as Helietta’s younger sister based on the extremely thin material she is given to work with. But Maria Cumani Quasimodo, a renowned dancer/choreographer turned character actress, is pretty amusing as the devout, secretive grandmother. She looks extremely old and frail–as if she’d shatter into a million pieces if anyone as much as touches her– but in contrast to her physical stature, she is shown to be a remarkably powerful figure. Quasimodo looks to have had fun with the part and is really enjoyable to watch; the scene in which the diminutive lady knocks Christopher Plummer unconscious with her cane being a memorable highlight. There’s also a memorable cameo from American voice dubbing actor Mickey Knox as the ill-fated flashback priest who unsuccessfully tries to shun Nosferatu from the Canins estate, and beloved character actress Clara Colosimo is a total hoot as the crazy medium who summons Nosferatu by referring to him with such colourful names as “manifestation of inequity”, “depravity personified”, “abomination of abominations” and my own personal favourite, “high priest of putridity”!

The German DVD from Midnight Movies appears to be a bootleg, albeit a good-looking one. The image is taken from a Spanish DVD release, which only included Spanish and Italian language options. The picture is presented in its correct 1.85:1 ratio, and although it is non-anamorphic, it looks highly impressive with strong, vibrant colours and a generally clean transfer. The night scenes are a little too dark but overall this is a real revelation for anyone used to those overly dark and fuzzy VHS versions that have been doing the rounds since the late ’80s. Now, details that were more or less impossible to spot in those murky VHS versions–such as the bat hanging over the door as a fleeing Helitta enters the estate–are now noticeable for us to appreciate. But on the downside, this improved transfer also reveals how incredibly hokey a few of the effects look, such as the make-up effects on the vampire in the old family tomb.

The disc comes with English, Italian and German audio options. Of most interest is of course the English track, which has Christopher Plummer, Donald Pleasence and Mickey Knox providing their own voices. Klaus Kinski, however, didn’t bother to do his own dubbing (which is nothing new) and while this is unfortunate, he doesn’t really have that much dialogue and he has been reasonably well-dubbed. Barbara De Rossi’s voice is dubbed by recognizable voice artist Pat Starke–who had previously dubbed De Rossi in the TV mini series QUO VADIS? and MUSSOLINI AND I (both 1985) too–and they are a really good fit. The rest of the Italian supporting cast are all adequately dubbed too. As far as technical quality goes, the English dub track is pretty solid. Dialogue is clear and easy to make out, there’s no noticeable background noise and the wonderful musical score comes through very well. There are some brief but severe glitches with the audio during the opening and closing credits which result in the music freezing up. Fortunately, this problem (which is not present on the German and Italian tracks) is very brief and does not occur during the rest of the film.

As expected, the extras are slim. All we get is a rough-looking but enjoyable German trailer that does a god job of selling the film.

Switching between so many directors and changing the script one time too many naturally hampers this belated NOSFERATU sequel, making it a messy and at times unfocused film. However, its atmosphere and visual appeal is undeniable, and there are enough impressive sequences to leave one wondering what this film could have been like had it not gone through so many production problems. As it is, NOSFERATU IN VENICE is frustrating but fascinating, flawed yet rewarding. It may not have lived up to Augusto Caminito’s ambitions, but it easily outshines most other Italian horror films from the late 1980s. Give it a chance.

(Johan Melle)