Nadja (1994) Retrospective

Count Voivoide Arminius Chousescu Dracula dies with a stake in his heart, and his daughter Nadja (Elina Löwensohn) shows up to claim the body, hoping that his death will free her from the life her father has forced on her. She has the body cremated and prepares to take the ashes to Brooklyn and pay a visit to her twin brother Edgar whom she hasn’t seen for a long time. Before she leaves, however, she stops for a drink and meets Lucy. Lucy is also feeling a sense of emptiness, so she takes Nadja home. They appear to cheer each other up, and they wind up having sex together.

So, who killed Dracula? Van Helsing (Peter Fonda), of course. And Helsing’s nephew Jim, who also happens to be Lucy’s husband, has to bail him out of jail. Helsing knows that, if Dracula’s body is not destroyed properly, he’ll be back. When Helsing learns that Dracula’s body has been removed from the morgue, he enlists Jim’s help.

Meanwhile, Nadja goes to visit Edgar and meets his nurse and live-in lover Cassandra. Edgar is sick. Nadja persuades Cassandra to move Edgar to her apartment where she can help him by transfusing him with plasma from the blood of shark embryoes, which is what Nadja uses to stay healthy. Edgar revives enough to drink some of Nadja’s blood. However, Lucy has fallen under Nadja’s mesmerism. She leads both Jim and Van Helsing to Edgar’s house where Nadja is staying with her Renfield. Edgar awakens long enough to warn Cassandra to leave the house, as she is in danger. Cassandra, who just happens to be Van Helsing’s daughter, attempts to escape, with Nadja pursuing her, Lucy pursuing Nadja, and Jim pursuing Lucy. Cassandra runs into a gas station where it looks like two burly mechanics are going to protect her, but Nadja mesmerizes them and kills one of them. The other one shoots Nadja in the abdomen.

Edgar is improving. He unites with the Helsings to stop Nadja. He receives a “psychic fax” from Nadja, telling him that she is injured and must return to Transylvania. She also mentions that she’s taking Cassandra with her, so Edgar and the Helsings high-tail it to Transylvania, too. As they approach the castle, Nadja begins a transfusion of Cassandra’s blood while Cassandra sleeps. While Jim fights with Nadja’s Renfield, Edgar and Helsing drive a stake through Nadja’s heart. Lucy is released, Nadja is destroyed, and Cassandra wakes up. However, not all is as it seems. Nadja narrates the epilogue: “They cut off my head…burned my body…no one knew…no one suspected that I was now alive in Cassandra’s body. Edgar and I were married at City Hall…there is a better way to live.”

The latest big screen excursion into the vampire genre, which takes a fresh look at the well-worn legend and is scheduled to open beginning in late August from October Films. Executive-produced by David Lynch and set in modern-day New York City, writer/director Michael Almereyda’s black-and-white movie is a lush, erotic tale that evokes the old fashioned chills of the Universal monster classics (especially Dracula’s Daughter). The film also uses the genre framework to make haunting observations about the intrinsic pain and emptiness of life, and in doing so, bridges the usual chasm between horror films and more serious independent cinema. But as he sits in a quiet East Village bar to discuss his latest feature on a bright, warm morning, the unassuming, Kansas-born Almereyda seems a world away from the nocturnal urban landscape that his characters inhabit.

“I wanted to do something fast and cheap,” Almereyda explains, “and horror movies seemed very attractive on a low budget. I also wanted to do a horror film because it taps into the primal emotions. You have license to get into deep emotional water, and at the same time muck about in clichés too. It’s fun, but it can also be profound. There’s no reason it can’t be.”

His appreciation for vampire movies led him in this particular direction. “It’s impossible not to be a fan, because some of the best movies ever made are vampire films,” he says. “You can’t do a history of cinema without acknowledging Murnau’s Nosferatu. Or Dreyer’s Vampyr. They’re cornerstones for anyone who cares about movies, both stylistically and emotionally. And there’s a current of that in my thinking.”

Nadja begins like a feverish dream, pulling the viewer into the stark, monochromatic twilight of Manhattan. Although Nadja (Elina Löwensohn), Dracula’s enticing young daughter, is now living in the urban center, she still follows the age-old predatory route of picking up strangers (not a difficult task, thanks to her alluring looks), pulling them into her web and having a quick snack from their open throats, accompanied by her trusty manservant, Renfield (Karl Geary). But unlike most screen vampires, who get more power-hungry over the years, these modern-day undead seem bored with their bar-hopping lifestyle. Instead of the stylized dementia that many modern vampire films strive for, Almereyda’s vision is one of world-weary melancholia, which helps anchor the script’s deeper emotions.

Nadja’s world is shaken when she learns that her infamous father (in her words, “a real bastard”) has been killed by Van Helsing (Peter Fonda). First on her agenda is to recover the body: after that, she tries to get the upper hand with Van Helsing before she becomes his next victim. But instead of the professorial vampire killer that we’ve come to know and love, Almereyda presents us with Fonda as a scraggly-haired kook who bikes about the East Village and rambles incessantly to his skeptical nephew, Jim (Martin Donovan), about Dracula (“He was like Elvis in the end… Drugs, confused, surrounded by zombies. The magic was gone”). But when Jim’s wife, Lucy (Galaxy Craze), is seduced and pulled into the “realm of shadows,” Van Helsing and Jim team up and go in search of the vengeful vamp.

The film also introduces us to Nadja’s bed-ridden twin brother, Edgar (Jared Harris), who’s fallen in love with Jim’s half-sister, Cassandra (Suzy Amis)—thus making this one big, twisted family affair. Amongst these human characters, Almereyda creates a tapestry of rocky relationships, loneliness and pain, juxtaposed against Nadja’s own unorthodox lifestyle. “One early impulse was to be able to show how everyday experience can cross over into something horrifying,” the director explains, and through this mix of disintegrating relationships and supernatural forces, the viewer can understand how horror movie style emotions can rise out of ordinary experience.

But it’s not all solemn introspection, because Almereyda also laces the script with touches of unexpected humor. During her first barroom encounter with Nadja, Lucy opens up and discusses her brother, who is now “born again”—a term which the literally born again Nadja seems more than a little confused about. Then there’s Geary’s dry comic turn as Renfield, whom Nadja matter of fact introduces to strangers as ‘my slave.”

Almereyda is no newcomer to the world of science fiction and horror, having written early drafts of Until the End of the World, Total Recall and Nightmare on Elm Street 5. But he’s currently focused on directing his own, more personal visions; he first won attention with Twister, a quirky comedy featuring cult favorites Crispin Glover and Harry Dean Stanton, followed by the critically acclaimed East Village slice of life Another Girl, Another Planet.

Nadja began as an idea entitled Vampire Girl, which Almereyda recalls had a very different approach. “I originally was thinking of making something really trashy and Cormanesque,” he says. “But Nadja turned out to be more resolved and polished and earnest than we first imagined. Maybe that’s something in my personality that I couldn’t repress. I couldn’t be trashy enough.

“Another reason that it’s not as trashy as I first conceived is that it’s expensive to make movies with lots of blood, even in black and white, because you have to have duplicates of the clothes. We also didn’t have time to wait to wash the costumes if we had blood splattered all over them, so we had to be discreet with it. The movie just became more tasteful as it went along.” Chuckling, he adds, “It’s hopelessly tasteful. But we did our best.

Longtime friend Lynch became involved early on. “I had a treatment and showed it to David,” Almereyda explains. “He said he’d like to support it, and it happened very fast after that. I wrote the script in about a month.” Lynch had previously helped Almereyda seek financing for a proposed Edgar Allan Poe movie, and, after reading the five-page treatment for Nadja, decided to fund it himself. The budget rose as they got more ambitious, moving from 16mm to 35mm, and even though Lynch had no creative hand in the project (aside from taking a cameo role as a morgue worker), his support was extraordinarily generous. According to Almereyda, “We had financing at one point that fell apart, and David bravely paid for it.”

The cast includes several faces familiar from the growing New York City independent scene, including Donovan, Amis, Craze and Harris. But it’s the ethereal Löwensohn, with her dark, harsh gaze, who holds center stage. Best known to art-house patrons from Hal Hartley’s thriller/comedy Amateur and also for her brief but powerful appearance in Schindler’s List, Löwensohn makes a stunning vampire as she glides down the city streets in a hooded cape and manipulates the supporting cast. Almereyda, a longtime acquaintance of Löwensohn’s, wrote the role specifically with her in mind, and explains that she has qualities beyond her obvious physical charms. “You can see a kind of loneliness or searching quality in the character,” he says. “And though on screen she can be remote, she can turn a corner and a warmth and sadness are visible.” The actress, who was actually born in Romania, came equipped with her own authentic accent, and Almereyda was even able to integrate true stories about her own parents into the final script.

The scene-stealer of the film, though, is Fonda, who brings a sharp sense of humor to his role as Van Helsing. Though the part wasn’t originally written with the actor in mind, he brings a manic energy to the proceedings, turning the world’s most famous vampire hunter into a wacky, aging hippie who acts as if he’s still reeling from some bad acid he took in the ’60s. “I wanted someone who was a visionary, who had this faraway look,” Almereyda notes. “And whether it’s madness or inspiration, you don’t know, because everything he says turns out to be true within the framework that he’s describing.”

Fonda’s inherent wildness adds a quirky edge to his character’s traditional genre traits, as when he casually checks if people are vampires by looking for a reflection in his mirrored sunglasses. “He’s an obsessive character, and I wanted someone who is iconographic,” Almereyda says. “Peter himself grew up with an iconographic father. And can you imagine what it’s like to have your image on a poster that’s in everyone’s bedroom for a whole generation?” For his part, Fonda was so enthusiastic about the role that he agreed to work for Screen Actors’ Guild minimum and pay his own airfare to the East Coast. Viewers should also keep their eyes peeled for Fonda’s cameo appearance as Count Dracula himself, in the midst of being staked-an innovative casting decision made to emphasize the duality of the stalker and the stalked. “We were afraid of it being too obvious,” Almereyda admits, “so instead people don’t realize until they see the credits. But he was elaborately made up, staggering around with artificial snow blowing in the wind machine, covered in chocolate syrup,” which was used to simulate blood.

Lynch’s own brief appearance as the morgue attendant, who’s put under Nadja’s spell when she arrives in the middle of the night to retrieve the staked body of her father, also made for a memorable day on the set. “It was fun for the crew, because there was a sense of a celebrity visiting,” the director remembers. “When David arrived, people said he reminded them of Bill Clinton. He had this down-home manner that made people relax.” In fact, Lynch was so effective in his role that while walking through a municipal building in his guard outfit, people would come up to him and ask where the bathroom was, thinking that he was an ordinary city employee.

The final product certainly conceals its very low budget, with its five-week shooting schedule taking place entirely within New York City–with the exception of a quick stint at Montauk, on the tip of Long Island, which became a stand-in for the Black Sea. One of the most effective sets is Nadja’s decayed Transylvania castle, where Van Helsing must face off with her during the heated finale. This was yet another challenge for the filmmakers’ ingenuity, as they turned an abandoned, burned-out hospital that served as New York’s first cancer ward into Nadja’s vast, ruinous family home. “We had to shovel out a lot of debris-you could film a war movie there,” Almereyda recalls. “It was very beautiful, vast and dangerous too. The insurance claim was pretty steep.”

Of course, filmmaking on a shoestring is never easy for the actors, especially when it came to such elements as Nadja’s need to bathe in blood, with chocolate milk used as an inexpensive substitute. “We were in an $8-million townhouse that we’d rented, and we had a coffin filled with chocolate milk, but there was no running hot water there,”

Almereyda says. “So Elina had to very bravely suffer. She was wearing a flesh-tone body stocking, and Karl was helping with her bath and feeding her a mug full of blood. And he had to stop himself from laughing, because portions of her anatomy kept floating.” Almereyda makes sure to add, “She suffered through a lot of indignities to make this film, so we made her very dignified in it.”

The film’s luminous black-and white photography, which captures the seductive lure of the city after dark, was the work of Jim DeNault. According to Almereyda, the decision not to shoot in color was motivated by both simple economic factors and aesthetic ones. “In color, you can’t suggest as many things,” he says. “You have to be very explicit. In black and white, you can make it more of a dream. That was always an important aspect of it.” The director does acknowledge that there’s a commercial downside to the decision, since many studios dislike black-and-white productions. “It’s something people resist. I feel lucky to have done it, because if you look around, the only people who are able to make black-and white movies are very successful directors-Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg—and even then it causes them trouble.” He adds, with a touch of dry humor, “I feel lucky that without having to be successful, I’ve managed to make black and-white films. I hope to be successful someday and graduate to color.”

Another, even more unique aspect of the movie is the use of a toy camera, the Fisher-Price PXL 2000, which Almereyda purchased for $45 and on which he shot all of Another Girl, Another Planet. Although the discontinued camera is a favorite for underground filmmakers, this is the first time that it has been blown up onto 35mm film. “I wanted to use Pixelvision because I thought there was something inherently horrific about it,” he says. “It’s evocative and dreamy and has a hypnotic quality that seemed right.”

Key scenes were written to be shot in Pixelvision, specified in the script. The idea was simply to give you the main character’s somatic point of view. You know, the woozy, ecstatic, aroused or frightened feeling of an insatiable young vampire. The Pixel image, you could say, has a vampiric quality, draining color, eating away at the boundaries of visibility while infecting a story’s nervous system.

Anyhow, it’s inherently dramatic, lyrical, and undead. Even a still shot gives off a shimmer of writhing pixels. Even a static scene contains an undercurrent of agitation. The image recorded through this crude camera’s lens is a hazy blur of reality that kicks in during any emotionally saturated moments, such as “anger, fear or desire—when the level starts to rise, it switches over to Pixelvision.” Using this camera was a twofold benefit: Not only did it give the film the proper look, but it was easy to shoot with. “It’s very flexible,” Almereyda confirms. “Actors are at first puzzled by it, and you have to get very close to them, so it’s disconcerting. But they also relax a lot, because it’s plastic and about the size of a book,” making the low-tech device less overbearing and more actor-friendly than 35mm equipment, ultimately giving the film a greater level of intimacy.

Almereyda shrugs off the potential for confusion with Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, another black-and white New York City-lensed female vampire film, which is also set to be released by October this fall. “We finished before Abel even started, but he likes to go around saying I copied him. It’s a very different movie.” Almereyda then generously adds, “I think it’s terrific, and that the two movies speak to each other and complement each other. Together, they’ll be a great double bill someday.”

Nadja (1994) Simon Fisher-Turner Score/SDTK

Elina Löwensohn as Nadja
Peter Fonda as Van Helsing
Suzy Amis as Cassandra
Galaxy Craze as Lucy
Martin Donovan as Jim
Karl Geary as Renfield
Jared Harris as Edgar

Director Michael Almereyda
David Lynch (also Executive producer) as morgue attendant (cameo)


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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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