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Vampire in Venice (DVD)

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Actors: Klaus Kinski, Christopher Plummer, Donald Pleasence, Barbara De Rossi, Anne Knecht / Directors: Klaus Kinski, Augusto Caminito / Language: English / Number of discs: 1 / Studio: Midnight Movies / Run Time: 90 minutes

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      02.09.2013 10:32
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      A strange, dull vampire film with an insufferable leading man

      A film-only review - a European DVD can be purchased for about £12 from amazon at the moment.

      Klaus Kinski is an actor with an immense cult following and a weirdly high reputation. He was a megalomaniac, probably mentally unwell, addicted to drugs, impossible to work with, and a voracious sex fiend. He had a monumental regard for his own talents, but made remarkably few good films. It's really only his movies with Werner Herzog that justify his reputation, and they were so difficult to make that Herzog famously came close to murdering Kinski during the making of Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

      Other than the Herzog films, Kinski played very few leading roles. He mostly drifted around Europe contributing apathetic cameos to spaghetti Westerns and gialli. Vampire in Venice (1988) is one of the few non-Herzog lead roles I've seen him play. It's an unofficial sequel to Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre, in which Kinski played the emaciated, bald vampire.

      In modern-day Venice, a vampire hunter comes to investigate an old legend in a posh family's villa. A séance somehow revives 'Nosferatu', who soon arrives to seduce the lady of the house and indulge in some tormented yearning for death.

      (Just to get the obvious thing out of the way: in the film 'Nosferatu', Kinski was playing Dracula - the film is unambiguous on that point. In this film, he is playing a vampire called 'Nosferatu'. Nosferatu is another word for vampire; it is not actually the name of any given vampire. Calling the character 'Nosferatu' is a bit like calling a dentist character 'Dentist'. This mistake is almost as annoying as when people say 'Frankenstein' when they mean 'Frankenstein's Monster'.)

      This film has many, many problems. To my mind, one of the main ones is that vampires should be terrifying revenants reeking of blood and the grave, not mincing new romantics pining wistfully for death. This kind of woolly thinking was at its height in the late 80s, what with Anne Rice. Unfortunately vampires have now become so corrupted they're not even horror monsters any more. They're a lifestyle choice for thick teenagers. How was this allowed to happen?

      That probably isn't the film's major problem. It's just the thing that annoyed me the most. The worst problem is the leading man. Kinski didn't have long left by this point, and he looks utterly raddled. He is a lousy advert for eternal life as he seems like he's going to just slide down a wall rolling his eyes at any moment. His performance is archetypal Kinski - he has a base level of charisma, but he relies far too much on curling his lip and doing a haughty stare. I'm not sure if he's acting or not - certainly a few scenes look like he's just standing around out of character. He reportedly refused to be bald in this film as he was in Nosferatu, and his long grey hair, with extensions, looks preposterous. He looks like Nigel Lawson going to a fancy dress party as David Bowie in Labyrinth.

      The film was chaotic, apparently. Up to four different directors worked on it, all being either fired or storming out after rows with Kinski (who directed parts of the film himself). The last man standing was Luigi Cozzi, who was also responsible for the silly science fiction epic Starcrash. It has the feel of a movie that got a limited amount of footage of its leading man and then had to construct a coherent narrative around that footage. It doesn't quite succeed - the story doesn't add up, important-seeming plot threads are dangled before us and then dropped, and the ending is incomprehensible. But it's no worse in that respect than, say, the original Casino Royale, which also had multiple directors and a complete jerk of a star.

      There are a few positives. It looks pretty nice, with good Venice footage (if slightly too somnolent, at times), and has expensive looking costumes. The music, some of which is by Vangelis, is pretty great - completely overwrought, like Tangerine Dream on speed. And even though it makes little sense, at least the story is trying to be different to typical vampire films. There's a constant stream of eerie noise in the villa, although the version I saw seemed to have messed the sound up a bit, leading to an echoey, distorted effect that made it sound perhaps a bit freakier than it really was. It also has a reasonably classy cast, Kinski aside.

      Well, what I mean is that it has two people you've heard of in it. Christopher Plummer was also in Cozzi's terrible Starcrash, in which he delivered a performance somewhere between utterly bewildered and delightfully camp. He wheels out exactly the same performance here, and it is most welcome. Oddly, he looks like Peter O'Toole half the time, and Michael Gough the other half. But he's probably the best thing in this, and was able to bounce back from the 70s/80s exploitation doldrums to win an Oscar and finally lay the spirit of Julie Andrews to rest.

      Donald Pleasence is the other person you'll have heard of. Unlike Plummer, Pleasence did very little other than exploitation in the 70s and 80s. Here he plays a priest who is constantly eating - in his first scene he seems to be stealing biscuits behind the back of his employer. I assume the food thing was included by the actor as a way of fleshing out an underwritten, baffling character. I have no idea what plot purpose he is actually meant to serve.

      The rest of the cast range from an annoying Neil Sedaka lookalike to an Eric Clapton lookalike whose purpose in the film is likewise mysterious. And there are a number of cute ladies, most of whom have to put up with being groped and drooled over by Kinski. He's especially keen on squeezing breasts in a way that looks quite painful. There's plenty of nudity, but thankfully Kinski doesn't remove so much as a stitch of clothing. There are also some vampire gypsies, which surely must confirm all of Nigel Farage's most lunatic fears about life on the continent.

      In spite of being a vampire film, there isn't a lot of explicit bloodsucking. There are a few mildly gory deaths, though - Kinski at one point summons a demonic wind which blows a bunch of priests onto some spiky railings. That's quite impressive, if totally random.
      The costumes are fairly elaborate, and the film heavily emphasises the fancy dress/masque element of Venetian social life. This does give the film the look and feel of an 80s music video, and you find yourself humming snippets of 80s pop hits as you watch. There are a few rather haunting shots, including a great, monumental Kinski shadow looming on a row of houses, but they're few and far between.

      The bad ultimately outweighs the good. It feels like the editing was a desperate process of trying to find things that looked like they matched and sticking them together to see what would happen. It's often obvious that actors aren't even in the same room as each other when we're supposed to believe they're talking to each other.

      But although it's not a good film, it's a lot less vexatious than I thought it would be. It's a lot more watchable than, say, Kinski's godawful Paganini biopic. Kinski was, by all accounts, a thoroughly nasty individual. Towards the end of his life it feels like his gigantic ego distorted the films he was in, leaving them fragmented and botched. Vampire in Venice is too slow and broken to be any good, but it's more interesting than you might expect, and even mildly enjoyable in places.

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