Summoned to Venice ailing occult expert Professor Catalano (Christopher Plummer) offers his aid to beautiful aristocrat Helietta Canins (Barbara De Rossi) who learns from her grandmother (Maria Cumani Quasimodo) that their Transylvanian past is linked to a dark secret lurking inside a coffin in the family crypt. With the aid of Helietta's lover Dr. Barneval (Yorgo Voyagis) and obstinate priest Don Alvise (Donald Pleasence), Catalano deciphers cryptic Latin texts. They clue him to the whereabouts of Nosferatu (Klaus Kinski) an ancient vampire seemingly intent on preying upon the Canins family. Specifically their nubile, often unclad young women.
Filmed as Nosferatu a Venizia but released as Vampire in Venice and later, on its belated DVD release, as Phantom of the Night this unofficial sequel to Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu (1979) has iconic German actor Klaus Kinski, in his penultimate film, reprising the role he was born to play. This time, at the actor's insistence, sans bald wig and makeup, sporting a shaggy blonde mane and looking like prog rock maestro Rick Wakeman but with fangs. It was a troubled production. Multiple directors jumped ship and the notoriously temperamental Kinski wreaked all kinds of havoc behind the scenes. Having previously worked with producer Augusto Caminito on the jungle adventure Grandi cacciatori (1988) co-starring Harvey Keitel it is likely Kinski only signed on for Nosferatu because the Italian agreed to finance his passion project musical biopic Paganini (1989).
Although Kinski certainly embodies the film's description of "depravity personified" his vampire cuts a decidedly morose figure as he wanders forlornly through the canals of Venice, surveying the surreal sights of its masquerade ball. This particular vampire somehow smirks at the sight of the crucifix, savours his reflection in a mirror, walks about in broad daylight, prefers impaling his enemies on conveniently omnipresent iron gates and relishes sex with beautiful female victims. Quite how Nosferatu developed his new-found immunity to traditional vampire weaknesses goes frustratingly unexplained but might well be another sop by Caminito to his star's raging ego. Within moments of arriving on set Kinski clashed violently with veteran Euro-horror director Mario Caiano (Nightmare Castle (1965), Eye in the Labyrinth (1972)) who promptly bailed (the second director to quit the production). This forced Caminito to step in with assistance from Luigi Cozzi (The Killer Must Kill Again (1975), Starcrash (1979) which also stars Christopher Plummer) although Kinski reportedly directed a good third of the film himself.
Rather than a straightforward monster, it seems Kinski saw Nosferatu as his last chance to play a romantic lead. Hence all the women swoon in his toothsome presence and willingly surrender their charms while the male characters prove uniformly powerless against him. Even Plummer's equally death-obsessed Van Helsing substitute and Pleasence's ranting, unhelpful priest ("The church forbids ritualistic seances!") prove ineffectual distractions from the 'star turn.' Recycling an idea established in F.W. Murnau's original Nosferatu (1922) the film has virginal young heroine Maria Canins (Anne Knecht) attempt to save the day through an act of selfless love. However far from an organic component of the story Knecht's presence was yet another concession to Kinski. When the actress visited her friend Yorgo Voyagis on the set, Kinski took a shine to her and insisted she be cast in the film so they could perform a lusty sex scene. Indeed throughout the film Kinski ravishes his glamorous co-stars with frankly unsettling bestial enthusiasm. Predictably events take a twist making a mockery of the film's attempt at a 'love conquers evil' message.
However, as one of the last examples of the classical Italian gothic, Vampire in Venice has a certain off-kilter charm. Its strongest asset by far is the dreamlike photography by Tonino Nardi which is exceptional. His haunting funereal images envision Venice as a city tormented by a legacy of death and disease with Kinski's vampire as a walking metaphor for its tortured history. Certainly the film fails as a coherent narrative with a zombie-like pace that probably struck horror fans of the Eighties as hopelessly old-fashioned. Yet it is not about short sharp shocks but lingering moments of darkly poetic beauty with an aching melancholy that, for all its flaws, is sporadically artful, even affecting at times, cementing Kinski as one of cinema's most memorable vampires. Music by Luigi Ceccarelli with additional synth noodlings by Vangelis.
Sort of Don't Look Now reimagined as a sex-crazed vampire ego trip. Kinski knew what an intriguing presence he was on the screen, but as often was unsure of how to apply that power, or unwilling to do it properly.