Thursday, 13 May 2021

Gothic Originals / Exploito All’Italiana:
Nosferatu in Venice
(Augusto Caminito et al, 1988)

 The tragedy of ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ is that, under more favourable circumstances, it could so easily have been great.

The character of Nosferatu - first seen of course in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece and resurrected in the form of Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake - remains a potent, genuinely terrifying and comparatively underused figure in the horror pantheon, whilst the city of Venice meanwhile remains one of the best places on earth in which to set a horror movie, its atmosphere of decaying, historical grandeur seeming to elevate the quality of pretty much any film project lucky enough to shoot there.

Just imagine, the grand spectacle of the Doge’s winter carnival, the bridges and alleyways thronging with depraved revellers vainly clinging on to the remnants of Italy’s moribund aristocracy, whilst below the water level, in the ancient sewers and catacombs, Nosferatu lurks, rat-like, spreading fear and death through the blood-lines of their errant daughters and abused servants... amazing. The damned thing writes itself.

Given that producer, screenwriter (and eventual director) Augusto Caminito wrangled a fairly lavish budget for the production (bankrolled at least in part by future despot Silvio Berlusconi), as well as gaining a remarkable level of access to some of the city’s most evocative shooting locations, ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ should by rights have been a sure thing - a last gasp triumph of Italian horror cinema’s twilight years. Needless to say though, that’s not exactly the way things turned out.

It would be all to easy to blame the project’s collapse into infamy and disaster entirely upon the mayhem perpetrated by Klaus Kinski (of which more shortly), but in truth things seem to have been going awry before he even arrived on set. By that point, Caminito had already hired and fired two directors (Maurizio Lucidi and Pasquale Squitieri), and - if the version of the film which was eventually released is anything to go by - the wafer thin narrative and bamboozling morass of expositional blather which comprise his screenplay are not exactly suggestive of a lost masterpiece.

Suffice to say though, if Caminito didn’t exactly have his ducks in line here, it was blood and feathers as far as the eye could see as soon as Kinski made the scene. Tales of the actor’s outrageous conduct during the 1980s are, of course, legion, but, clearly aware that ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ lived or died on the basis of his participation, this particular shoot seems to have found the actor scaling ever greater heights of maniacal narcissism.

This was made immediately evident upon his arrival, when, famously, he refused point blank refused to wear the Nosferatu make-up which had been prepared for him, declaring instead that he would play the vampire, sans prosthetics, as a more ‘romantic’ figure, complete with his own long, thinning blonde hair.

Not only did this make a mockery of evoking the Nosferatu name in the first place (and indeed of hiring Kinski specifically to reprise his role from Herzog’s film), but even more gallingly for the producers, the crew had already shot and edited twenty minutes of footage - shot at great expense during Venice’s winter carnival - featuring a double wearing the full Nosferatu make-up.

Consulting the sketchy contract Kinski had signed for his appearance in the film, it was determined that there was nothing in place to actually compel him to wear the make-up… and woe-betide anyone who cared to try. With a substantial chunk of the budget already in the truculent star’s pocket, there was nothing to be done but surrender to his whims, ditching the pre-shot footage, re-jigging the script and trying to find something else that could inexpensively fill all that empty screen time.

The next disaster was quick to arrive when the film’s third director, “safe pair of hands” industry veteran Mario Caiano (best known to horror fans for helming 1965’s Nightmare Castle) quit after less than a day on set, walking out after a violent altercation with Kinski. Thereafter, Caminito took the reins himself, with significant (uncredited) assistance from second unit director / special effects supervisor Luigi Cozzi [also see: Paganini Horror].

We could continue discussing the difficulty Kinski provoked on set at some length here, but one anecdote related by Cozzi will hopefully prove sufficient. Apparently at one point, he and Caminito left the set for ten minutes, to make a phone call and buy some cigarettes. Returning, they found Kinski sitting alone in an empty room, the entire crew having apparently packed up their equipment and left with the intention of boarding the next plane back to Rome, so heinously had the star managed to offend them during the producer/director’s brief absence.

All of this though pales into insignificance compared to the rumours surrounding Kinski’s abuse of his female co-stars, which cast an ugly pall over whatever enjoyment may still be gleaned from ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ in its ‘finished’ form. Again, we don’t need to labour the point here, but the grisly details are easily google-able, and if true, they’re pretty horrendous.

In summary though, it seems that actress Elvire Audray (who plays the wife of the movie’s supposedly heroic doctor character, woodenly played by Yorgo Voyagis) left the film with immediate effect when - as per Cozzi’s recollections once again - Kinski disregarded an instruction to bite her on the neck during filming, and instead subjected her to what can only be described as a violent and sustained sexual assault.

(Even taking into account the progress which has been made on such matters since the dark days of the 1980s, it seems extraordinary to me that Kinski was not behind bars within hours of this incident, having essentially attacked and injured a woman in front of multiple witnesses and a rolling camera, but… who am I to speculate on the whys and wherefores of the situation?)

Be that as it may, Kinski remained on the loose, and tried the same tactics on the film’s ostensible leading lady, Barbara De Rossi, allegedly molesting her off-camera whilst shooting close ups for a scene in which Nosferatu seduces her character in her bedroom. Reportedly, De Rossi only agreed to continue work on the film after receiving a promise that she would never again be placed in close proximity to Kinski… thus necessitating further rewrites. (1)

Meanwhile, the star seems to have found what we must assume was slightly more willing recipient of his attentions in the shape of a young woman named Anne Knecht, who apparently caught his eye when she visited the set as Voyagis’s girlfriend. Despite Knecht having no prior acting experience, Kinski insisted she was cast as a hastily-scripted new character. (No wonder the female characters in the finished film are so ill-defined and interchangeable.)

Presumably to the great relief of the other cast members, Knecht went on to dutifully provide the bulk of the film’s requisite nudity, most prominently during the lengthy ‘love scene’ (I use the term loosely) which comprises the film’s the finale. Therein, we see a shockingly haggard looking Kinski groping and clambering around on Knecht’s impassive naked body for what feels like hours, whilst, in a particularly grim irony, the footage is intercut with shots of her real life boyfriend Voyagis grumpily stomping about in ineffectual ‘vampire hunter’ mode.

And so the chaos went on, until - thankfully for all concerned, I can only assume - Caminito called principal photography to a close after six weeks, despite having only acquired around two thirds of the footage he needed to complete the scripted film - in addition to ten solid hours of material ‘directed’ by Kinski himself, featuring his character stalking alone through Venice’s pre-dawn streets. (Ironically, these shots actually comprise some of the best stuff in the finished film.)

In view all the palaver outlined above, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ emerged as an extraordinarily disjointed mess. Unreleased for several years after shooting was completed, the film’s editing (credited to Claudio Cutry) comprises the cutting room equivalent of a dazzling high wire act, splicing together pieces of mismatched, discontinuous footage into some semblance of narrative order, with… mixed results, in spite of what I take to have been herculean efforts on Cutry’s part.

The tragedy of it is though, there are bits of the film - sequences of shots here and there, or even entire scenes during the first half - which are genuinely excellent. The deep shadows and subdued, Gordon Willis-esque lighting favoured by DP Tonino Nardi lend a pungent, foreboding atmosphere to the Venetian location footage, whilst interior scenes featuring the film’s better actors (Christopher Plummer, Donald Pleasence, and Maria Cumani Quasimodo as ‘the princess’), apparently filmed in a genuine, suitably palatial Venetian villa, achieve a sense of brooding menace, reminiscent of such art-house horror staples as Borowczyk’s ‘Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes’ or Tony Scott’s The Hunger. “Terrible things happened in these chambers two hundred years ago,” we are repeatedly told, and for a while there, we can believe it.

Even the disjointed / discontinuous editing rhythms sometimes work in the film’s favour, bringing a murky, opiated haze to proceedings, suggestive of some incorporeal, space/time warping evil which feels entirely in keeping with the symbolic/metaphysical aspect of the Nosferatu character, whilst the thinly sketched, comic book weirdness of the, uh, ‘plot line’ invests everything with a haphazard surrealism which surpasses even the ‘80s output of directors like Cozzi or Lucio Fulci for sheer bewilderment.

So, speaking of the plot, let’s try to get this straight, shall we?

A perpetually silk-clad young woman, who lives alongside several other young women in a crumbling Venetian villa belonging to an elderly ‘princess’ afflicted by a cursed bloodline, invites a Van Helsing surrogate vampire expert to come and see her, because she has found an iron-bound coffin in the villa’s basement which she believes, for some reason, must be the resting place of the dread Nosferatu, who (it is apparently well known) was last seen in Venice exactly two hundred years earlier.

But, this cannot be so, the vampire expert (‘Professor Catalano’, played by Plummer) insists, because Nosferatu actually perished in a shipwreck somewhere far away, and now rests at the bottom of the ocean. But, everyone at the villa still feels some kind of psychic ‘connection’ to the bad ol’ vampire (reflecting both the cursed bloodline business, and the fact that he committed assorted atrocities in the villa back in 1786). So, what else do do but call in a medium and hold a séance with the intention of contacting the spirit of Nosferatu, thus prompting him to awaken from his slumber and bust out of his dusty coffin way over yonder in… some other place. (Not the bottom of the ocean, at any rate.)

After taking time out to engage in some lusty dancing with a group of gypsies who - in an interesting, if politically questionable, throwback to Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ - appear to hold him in high reverence, the revived Nosferatu employs a rather vague supernatural methodology to transport himself back to Venice, where, needless to say, he sets about biting necks, leching over ladies and indulging his inexplicable passion for throwing people out of windows.

Brilliant! All makes perfect sense, right? Italian horror movie logic, god how I love it.

Also hitting that late-era Italio-horror sweet-spot, consistently undermining the film’s intermittent attempts to achieve a more ‘classy’ feel, is Luigi Ceccarelli’s score, which - perhaps reflecting the lack of funds/enthusiasm which remained for this project during post-production - sounds as it was recorded on the cheapest synthesizer available, and transferred to the film via a warped cassette tape left for too long in direct sunlight. Whether the fact that I still enjoy the music speaks to Ceccarelli’s talents or just my personal fondness for such lo-fi aesthetics, I’ll leave readers to judge for themselves.

So, for my purposes at least, this is all pretty amazing as far as it goes - but, each time we’re ready to settle back and surrender to the intoxicating, oneiric groove of the whole thing, something completely stupid happens, crashing us straight back to reality. Again and again, the film catapults us from the sublime to the ridiculous in a matter of seconds, which proves a real buzz-kill.

Nosferatu’s aforementioned return to Venice proves a good case in point. A disconnected series of images sees him gliding across unguessed at landscapes before he is seen stalking recognisable Venetian landmarks in the eerie glow of the rising/setting sun, temporarily imbuing him with an ethereal, nameless menace matching the baleful rhetoric which has previously spouted about him in the film’s heavy-handed dialogue.

When he appears, silently, in the bedroom of the elderly princess, grinning like some imp of the perverse - or like Robert Blake’s white-faced man in Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’ perhaps - the effect is truly horrific. Utterly malevolent, Kinski is all too convincing here as the personification of death, pestilence and misfortune, come to wreak cold, impersonal suffering upon all who cross his path.

We can only savour this exquisite dread for a few seconds though, because… then he jumps up and throws the old lady out of the window! An unconvincing dummy goes SPLAT on the inevitable spiked railings which surround a small patch if garden below, and we cut to an unedifying insert shot of the 78-year-old Maria Cumani Quasimodo - evidently not impaled upon the railings - with some stage blood dribbling down her chin.

Unbelievably, this exact same defenestration gag - a ridiculous way for a supposed master vampire to deal with his prey, aside from anything else - is repeated, equally unconvincingly, several more times during the film, as if someone on the production was convinced that a few good railing impalements was all it would take to win over a post-‘Omen’ horror crowd.

Even in terms of its gory horror business though, ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ is wildly inconsistent - consider for instance a frankly incredible shot elsewhere, when Nosferatu is hit point-blank in the chest by a shotgun blast. In what was apparently a green-screen effect orchestrated by Cozzi, we see Kinski raise his arms in a mocking, Christ-like posture, revealing a perfectly spherical hole in his chest, through which we can see traffic slowly passing on the canal behind him. It’s a pretty great moment.

Essentially anchoring the first half of the film, Christopher Plummer initially seems determined to bring his A game to a frankly dreadful script, lending an admirable amount of gravitas to the rambling passages of cod-vampiric lore he is called upon to recite. As the film goes on though, and the situations get sillier, we can almost see him disengaging, his patented “ah, I see now - this is a load of shit” expression becoming increasingly difficult to hide.

And indeed, his facial muscles have a point. Entirely dismissing the accepted ‘rules’ for vampirism, Caminito’s script instead opts to just, well… make up a bunch of random shit, as Plummer’s dulcet tones are employed to inform us that, amongst other things, the illegitimate children of illegitimate parents (and/or plague victims) will inevitably become vampires, that the only surefire way to destroy a vampire is to use bullets filled with liquid mercury, and that - rather like Waldemar Daninsky - a vampire’s spirit can only achieve true death after receiving the pure love of a virgin. (Boy, I bet Kinski must’ve loved that last one!) 

I wouldn’t mind so much, only… none of these novel innovations actually seem to have much of an impact on the film’s storyline?

Back in the real world meanwhile, I’m guessing that Plummer must have also left the production before shooting concluded - having presumably completed his contractually obligated number of days, or whatever - meaning that his all-too-noticeable absence from the film’s final act is rationalised by means of a hurriedly slapped together montage of unconnected shots, which attempt to visually convey the idea that, having despaired of his ability to defeat Nosferatu following a heated argument with Donald Pleasence’s priest character, Professor Catalano has committed suicide by jumping from a bridge into the canal!

Largely avoiding such indignities meanwhile, Pleasence (who seemed to have been specialising in bringing a touch of class to creaky gothic horror movies starring hell-raising sex-pests at this point in his career) here provides good value for money as usual, playing a weak-willed, gluttonous priest who attends the elderly princess.

As has been mentioned, Maria Cumani Quasimodo (who may be recognisiable to euro-cult fans for small roles in ‘Femina Ridens’ and ‘All The Colors of the Dark’), does fine work here too, as does Clara Colosimo (a wife, mother & maid specialist in Italian movies since the early ‘60s) as the medium. It’s interesting in fact to find two such strong roles for older women in a project which otherwise seems awash with misogyny on both sides of the camera. (One shot of Colosimo cruising through the canals in her private gondola, hair defying gravity, proves particularly memorable.)

So where, ultimately, does ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ sit within the cultural hinterlands of late ‘80s Italian horror? Even assuming we can temporarily put aside the legends arising its nightmarish production, is the weird, beached husk of a movie which remains ultimately worth our time?

Well, as difficult as it may be to defend from any objective standpoint, what can I say? We still watch ‘The Lady From Shanghai’ and ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’, don’t we? We still listen to Big Star’s ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ and The Beach Boys’ ‘Smiley Smile’. So why not ‘Nosferatu in Venice’?

The difference, I suppose, is that each of those works had the hand of a legitimate creative genius behind them, and seeing that hand slip or fail or tear itself apart carries a fascination which can sometimes even surpass that engendered by the greatest of artistic triumphs.

By contrast, ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ provides us with an equally fascinating example of a creative work which reached completion (in a manner of speaking) with no one at the wheel. Cruising into harbour like the empty, cursed ship which carries Nosferatu to shore in Murnau’s original film, there is a black hole at the centre of this movie - a void where the vision or direction provided by even a mediocre guiding light would normally be found.

Kinski may have established himself as the dominant presence on set through sheer force of will, but at the same time he was clearly happy to see the film crash and burn, interested solely in the opportunities it provided for him to pamper his ego and indulge his demonical lusts. Caminito meanwhile was obviously way out of his depth with regard to all aspects of on-set filmmaking, whilst everyone else simply kept their heads down and prayed for the damn thing to end.

Nardi’s lighting, Cutry’s editing, and the steadfast presence of Plummer, Pleasence and Quasimodo - these things came through to deliver 86 minutes of tangible celluloid which we can watch today without physical pain, but beyond that… the closest thing the movie gets to an auteur is probably Venice itself, the riches of its architecture and atmosphere infusing nearly every shot, pretty much cementing my long-held suspicion that literally anything shot in this extraordinary city will to some extent be worth watching.


 


 

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(1) Widely repeated around the internet, the film’s Wikipedia page sources the accusations concerning Kinski’s abusive behaviour on set back to both Roberto Curti’s book ‘Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1980-1989’ (2019) and Matthew Edwards’ ‘Klaus Kinski: Beast of Cinema’ (2016), whilst the stories are also reiterated to some extent by both Cozzi and soundman Luciano Muratori in the excellent documentary ‘Creation is Violent: Anecdotes from Kinski’s Final Years’, which accompanies Severin’s recent blu-ray edition of ‘Nosferatu in Venice’. We here at BITR can of course make no claims either way regarding the accuracy of these tales, especially if there are any legal professionals in the room.