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Nosferatu in Venice

by Glenn Erickson Mar 20, 2021

This obscure Italian horror has Christopher Plummer, Donald Pleasence and atmospheric locations — and a making of story that Severin tells in full unexpurgated detail. Never released in an English- language territory, Augusto Caminito’s brooding shocker had four directors. Its commercial chances were derailed by its deranged star, Klaus Kinski, who poses well, molests his female co-stars and sabotages what was supposed to be a high-end horror attraction. Maybe Werner Herzog could wring what he wanted out of Klaus, but the manic prima donna gave everyone else the shaft.


Nosferatu in Venice
Blu-ray
Severin Films
1988 / Color / 1:77 widescreen / 93 min. / Vampire in Venice, Prince of the Night / Street Date March 20, 2021 / Available from Severin Films / 30.00
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Christopher Plummer, Barbara De Rossi, Yorgo Voyagis, Anne Knecht, Donald Pleasence, Elvire Audray, Giuseppe Mannajuolo, Clara Colosimo, Maria Clementina Cumani Quasimodo, Micaela Flores Amaya ‘La Chunga’, Mickey Knox.
Cinematography: Tonino Nardi
Film Editor: Claudio M. Cutry
Original Music: Luigi Ceccarelli, Vangelis
Written by Augusto Caminito story by Alberto Alfieri, Leandro Lucchetti
Produced by Augusto Caminito
Directed by
Augusto Caminito, uncredited Luigi Cozzi, Maurizio Lucidi, Klaus Kinski

Klaus Kinski, Christopher Plummer and Donald Pleasance in a vampire film?  I’m there. This well-financed show apparently began as an unofficial sequel to Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre, with the unique Klaus Kinski repeating in the lead role. It didn’t work out that way at all. The producer and director found out that all bets were off as soon as Kinski showed up to film. He had no intention of going through any of the makeup ordeals that had turned him into a lookalike for F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 version. That meant that a great deal of footage already filmed with a double couldn’t be used.

Kinski basically torpedoed what had been scripted as an intelligent, high-toned vampire effort. Working actors Plummer and Pleasance responded professionally under the circumstances. At various times in their careers they had to take what jobs they could get. Critical hits like The Silent Partner hadn’t kicked Plummer’s career into high gear. Donald Pleasance’s continuing role in Halloween had returned him to his roots in horror. I remember editing TV spots (that likely nobody ever saw) for a truly wretched Cannon Group production, House of Usher (1989) even though I couldn’t make myself sit through it.

 

Nosferatu in Venice is an odd item. It looks too good to be an orphaned horror film, even if its color scheme leans toward murky blue and gray in those pre-dawn Venetian byways. The acting is good, or at least functional. Kinski is certainly an arresting presence, and for a few scenes Christopher Plummer makes us think we’re getting into something very special. But in this case the lead actor essentially prevented his own film from being properly filmed.

Professor Paris Catalano (Christopher Plummer) arrives in Venice to investigate the fears of the titled Canins clan: it’s long been a legend that the dreaded vampire Nosferatu was last seen at the Venetian Carnevale in 1786, and victimized one of the Canins women. A mysterious sarcophagus in the Canins crypt, way below water level, is sealed with iron straps. Nosferatu’s name is summoned during a seance, and sure enough the vampire once again goes on the prowl. Naughty Nosfy contacts a band of Spanish gypsies with whom he has a blood relationship, and makes one of them his newest bride. Catelano and Dr. Barneval (Yorgo Voyagis of Frantic) search for Nosferatu’s resting place and try to protect the Canins women. But neither gunfire nor religious symbols have any effect on the vampire. Nosferatu recognizes the virginal Helietta Canins (Barbara De Rossi) as his true love, the reincarnation of the woman he killed in 1786. Falling under his spell, she asks to join him in eternal un-death. But the vampire has other ideas. As Catelano has theorized, he wants to use Helietta to commit suicide, to become truly dead.

 

This fan of Eurohorror is something of a language snob; I decided to watch Severin’s Blu-ray because an original Italian track was included. Five minutes later I switched over to the English. Most of the actors are speaking in English, and Christopher Plummer really needs his correct voice. When Plummer is on screen every scene hums, ‘like a real movie.’

The opening of Nosferatu in Venice promises a lot.  Plummer’s Catalano cruises into the town standing on a gondola; he looks like he might have made an excellent Dracula himself. Later on, when Klaus Kinski’s vampire takes to posing on a gondola, he just looks miserable, like Don Lope de Aguirre suffering from a Peruvian monkey migraine.

Much of Christopher Plummer’s interaction with the decadent Venetian family is through excellent non-verbal acting. In general, the characters and relationships remain undeveloped — all the attention is on Kinski’s villain, who mostly performs in isolated scenes (the reason for which will be forthcoming). Some of the casting is excellent. An elderly actress by the name Maria Clementina Cumani Quasimodo is the ancient Princess Canins, a veiled woman terrified that Nosferatu will return.

 

Nosferatu in Venice began production with a full screenplay, but the narrative soon lapses into a series of arresting episodes that occasionally seem unrelated. Catelano’s arrival blends with flashbacks showing plague victims, several hundred years ago. We later see flashbacks to the Carnevale of 1786, a Bal Masque on the canals complete with fireworks show. We’re not exactly sure when some other episodes are meant to take place, such as the confrontation in which three friars (led by the great Mickey Knox ) are slaughtered by the vampire’s supernatural power. The churchmen end up blasted through a window, in slow motion.

The film’s key confrontation is a shotgun-and-crucifix showdown between Nosferatu, Catalano and Dr. Barneval. Plummer just plays it for the action, and because none of Catalano’s Van Helsing tricks have any effect, he comes off as an ineffectual fool. Indeed, Plummer exits the film very soon thereafter, in a way that makes us imagine the actor saying, ‘Okay, you’ve used up my five days and this movie’s not going anywhere. Think of something quick because I’m out of here.’

A straight vampire story in the middle 1980s is rare to see, what with the genre taken over by teen vampires and comedy Draculas. This is slow and serious. The genre content includes several vampiric seductions, some violent killings, the seance, and a trip to a Gypsy Camp of the Damned. The broken continuity doesn’t always make relationships clear, and the women characters are not strongly differentiated. All emphasis goes to the slow-moving, intense Nosferatu. Some episodes simply show him walking in the fog, or cruising the pre-dawn canals. There’s no sense of urgency with Kinski’s brooding villain.

 

In no way did the filmmakers plan to make a moody film with a broken storyline and non-linear detours. Even with its star cast, the release of Nosferatu in Venice was delayed for three years. It was never released theatrically in the U.S..  What happened?

Klaus Kinski happened, that’s what.  At this point the actor was completely out of control, unmanageable, a catastrophe waiting to sabotage any film director’s plan for a coherent movie. No torturous makeup sessions for Kinski — he decided he would play Nosferatu wearing his wild white hair, eye makeup and occasional rat fangs. Kinski is always arresting, but he makes no visual connection with the bulb-headed, insectoid ghoul played by Max Schreck in ’22. This Nosferatu looks more like an apprentice Morlock.

Severin’s extras tell the behind-the-scenes story, which frankly makes the movie twice as memorable. Docu director Josh Johnson’s filmmaker interviews describe a film shoot that was simply non-functional. Kinski violently rejected even the most basic direction, causing more than one director to quit. The actor insisted on the hiring of expensive Spanish flamenco stars for just a brief series of shots. He seems to have rearranged some of the casting, so as to maneuver attractive ‘partners’ into place for his sex scenes. One young actress had no idea she was going to be mauled on camera. We are told that ‘things’ happened during filming that constituted criminal sexual assault. A sound man testifies that he saw the actress technically raped once, maybe twice during takes, just out of the camera frame.

 

The impression is that Kinski cooperated mainly for the sex scenes; if most of his material isolates him it’s because he simply refused to do his job. Kinski can also be afforded uncredited director status: he demanded a camera crew to go out pre-dawn in Venice to shoot whatever he felt like shooting. Much of this ‘atmosphere’ material is very attractive, especially with the moody Vangelis music on the soundtrack. But the storyline just vanishes.

With directors quitting or being rejected by Kinski, producer Augusto Caminito had no choice but to direct himself. Caminito understates the severity of the chaos on the set, while the other interviewees concur that every day of work brought at least one violent Kinski tantrum. Filmmaking did not progress. The crew even went on strike. Several crew members individually asked the director, ‘Could you please kill Kinski for us?’  But the producer-director tries to be diplomatic, assuring the interviewer that, ‘Oh no, these were just the kind of problems that happen on every movie.’

 

Providing some of the best input is filmmaker Luigi Cozzi, whose open-faced testimony comes across as wholly believable, the truth. Cozzi was brought on to direct (new?) action material to give the movie some shape. He also engineered some rather odd special effects — when Dr. Barneval shoots Nosferatu with a shotgun, a cartoonish hole appears in Kinski, like the effect on Stacy Keach in John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.

While Klaus Kinski was busy sneering in close-up and molesting his co-stars, Cozzi was shooting the film’s several defenestration deaths, by suicide, hypnotic influence, and ‘psychic force.’ In this movie, it seems, vampire victims most often die by falling from high windows onto spiked iron fences, as in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. You’d think after the second or third such fatality the Canins family would do something about those fences.

 

Kinski prevented the show from getting its money’s worth from its expensive imported cast members. As the family priest Don Alvise, Donald Pleasance has little to do but watch from the sidelines. Father Alvise talks big when protesting the seance or damning the devil, and then hides in corners when real trouble comes. The interviewees tell us that Pleasance did his scenes perfectly when summoned, and otherwise stayed entirely out of the way, separate from the fireworks on the set. I imagine the actor’s months in a German POW camp prepared him for strange shoots in strange places.

Christopher Plummer’s striking initial scenes, possibly filmed before Kinski’s arrival, prepare us for powerful events that never transpire. The big showdown must have been filmed before Kinski stopped cooperating. From that point forward Plummer walks through his scenes; his exit from the movie is practically a non-sequitur. The inconclusive ending is intriguing for its handful of loose ends — Dr. Barneval’s big rescue attempt goes nowhere, but it does interfere with Nosferatu’s plan to end his undead existence. The vampire ends up carrying Helietta’s nude body through the pre-dawn fog, to where we haven’t a clue. It’s a nice image that impresses us with Kinski’s strength and balance, and Ms. De Rossi’s stamina. Somebody get that woman a warm blanket!

I’m surprised that Nosferatu in Venice holds together as well as it does. With the eerie Venetian pre-dawn fog and mist to exploit, the mood creeps in. Cameraman Tonino Nardi doesn’t arrange any expressive lighting effects but the semi-realistic tone isn’t bad. His camera is partial to those damp, narrow Old Venice passageways. The many elaborate interiors — rooms with 25-foot rococo ceilings, etcetera — make an impression that a low-budget film cannot. When Christopher Plummer goes down to check out the crypt, we really believe we’re in some catacombs somewhere.

 


 

Severin Films’ Blu-ray of Nosferatu in Venice is an excellent example of the company’s commitment to Euro-horror history. The transfer looks spotless, and handsomely timed; the word is that it was scanned from the original negative in 2K. Not a showcase film for color design, this is exactly the kind of film that doesn’t work in a sub-par transfer. The dark blues and greens of those foggy exteriors feel appropriate. It’s all dark and dank, but we know we’re seeing what we’re supposed to see.

One point of interest is that the film score features a number of cues from Vangelis. I’m told that they weren’t written for the movie, but came from the Vangelis album Mask.

David Gregory, Carl Daft and company have been compiling excellent filmmaker interviews for over twenty years. Their sessions are always well prepared and prompted — we get no garrulous interviewees rambling out of control. The good interviews for Nosferatu in Venice are on topic, perhaps because all discussion on this show leads immediately to its starring madman.

Director Josh Johnson’s feature-length docu is Creation is Violent : Anecdotes From Kinski’s Final Years. Conflicting versions of events are allowed to stand without comment, giving us a rounded view of how the same film shoot can be interpreted by different participants. There’s also an amusing contrast of personalities. It’s great fun to see the thoughtful Augusto Caminito downplaying the chaos, soberly telling us that the shoot wasn’t so bad. He’s immediately followed by Luigi Cozzi, who can barely contain his laughter at the abusive behavior and movie-wrecking absurdities he witnessed day in and day out. I think I’d get along great with Signor Cozzi.

 

One interesting point revealed is that Nosferatu in Venice was made with a money deal from Silvio Berlusconi, the controversial Italian politician. Executive producer Carlo Alberto Alfieri had big plans to make more quality pictures with Berlusconi’s backing, but that was all BKK (Before Klaus Kinski).

The docu covers Klaus Kinski’s waning career from 1985 or so forward, all the way to his death in California in the early 1990s. His unbalanced nature wasn’t limited to just one movie. Actress Diane Salinger does her best to describe the actor’s outrageous sexual come-ons. Kinski’s self-directed & self-indulgent movie Paganini is covered; so is Herzog’s excellent Cobra Verde to a lesser degree. Helping a great deal with this section is Kinski’s fourth wife Debora Caprioglio, who smiles as if his bursts of rage were a minor problem. Two residents of Lagunitas, California that grew close to Kinski before he died recall him as one of the sweetest and most sensitive people they’d ever met.

I recommend that Kinski fans check out the actor’s second movie appearance, un-billed, in a big-budget war/espionage film from 20th Fox, Anatole Litvak’s Decision Before Dawn (1951). On screen for just a few seconds, the young actor is a standout as a German prisoner of war trying to get a job working for U.S. Army intelligence. The rat-like Kinski looks desperate, completely untrustworthy. He’s obviously star material.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Nosferatu in Venice
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good — but the backstory makes it Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Original English and Italo dub
Supplements: Creation is Violent – Anecdotes From Kinski’s Final Years by Josh Johnson; additional cast & crew interviews, Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
March 16, 2021
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.