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Nadja (1994)

I have to get back on track with the Top 70 list after my long detour through Vampire Hunter D, Hellsing, Blood+, and Trinity Blood. It is so interesting to me how each title has multiple incarnations — manga, TV series, movie, novelization — and that each version has distinct differences in plot. But that’s a matter for another time.

Nadja (1994), #38 on the Top 70 Vampire Films of All Time list, was super cool. It’s produced by David Lynch so it has that lynchian feel to it. The film is set in contemporary New York. When we first meet Nadja, she’s talking with a guy at a bar. She talks about how she wants to change her life and simplify it. Later, she takes the same guy to a cab and eventually drains his blood. So there’s our vampire. However, we come to find out that she and her twin Edgar are Dracula’s children and while Edgar tries to resist his vampiric nature, Nadja fully indulges in her’s.

We are also introduced to Jim and Lucy at the film’s beginning. Jim’s crazy uncle Van has been arrested for murder. When Jim asks Lucy who he killed, Lucy says “All I know is that he killed him with a wooden stake through the heart.” You guessed it — Jim’s uncle is Abraham Van Hellsing and he claims to have finally killed Dracula.

One of the delights of the film is the ways in which it flirts with the original Dracula without being slavish to it. Characters have familiar names (Lucy, Van Hellsing, Renfield) and plot points remain (the vampiric seduction of Lucy, Nadja’s race to get back to her home soil in the Carpathians, Renfield’s service to Nadja), but the differences are significant too. The bewildered Jim is dragged into this world of vampires and vampire hunting by Van Hellsing when Lucy becomes sick, Edgar was an archeologist working in South Dakota until his “health” forces him to return to New York, Edgar’s love for his nurse Cassandra is the thing that inspires his refusal to drink blood, even though it leaves him near comatose and dying.

The film actually has a dry humor running throughout. But the jokes are played straight, creating this really great blend of drama and humor — pretty typical for a David Lynch film so perhaps those touches are the results of his influence. Most of the humor comes from Van Hellsing, played by Peter Fonda (after watching Peter Fonda’s ridiculously bad performance in the Thomas the Tank Enginemove more times than I care to count, it was so nice to see him be really really good in something). For example, Lucy has a pet tarantula named Bella. It’s been much admired and cuddled by Nadja when she visits Lucy’s apartment but when Van Hellsing sees it later, he immediately pounds it with a stake exclaiming “See that? They’re on to me! Forces are at work. I mean, how many times do you see a tarantula roaming around your apartment, Jim?” Jim replies, “Well, it WAS Lucy’s pet….” To which Van Helsing says, “Serious? A pet tarantula? Nah, this is the deadly Romanian Octilia. His mouth is like a tiny poison guillotine….” When Jim bails Van Hellsing out of jail and takes him to a diner for a sandwich, Van Hellsing reports that his final battle with Dracula was rather anticlimatic because “he was like Elvis in the end. Drugged, confused, surrounded by zombies.” The stoic and sardonic Renfield also has his moments. Lynch has an amusing cameo as a police officer who is quickly befuddled by Nadja and Renfield when they come to claim Dracula’s body.

The film comes to revolve around the question of what will happen now that Dracula is dead. Both Van Hellsing and Nadja want to get the body out of the morgue because they know a mere stake in the heart isn’t going to cut it. But Nadja doesn’t want to bring her father back — she wants to cut off his head and reduce him to ashes because she believes that once Dracula is gone she will finally be free to change her life. What she doesn’t realize is that some things can’t be changed and that some changes don’t even make a difference. Nadja wants a “better life,” one that is not dictated by her father, but she doesn’t realize that whether or not Dracula is dead has nothing to do with it. The choices she makes are still her own.

Lucy, who stumbles around like a zombie for most of the movie after being seduced by Nadja, wants to change her life as well. Trapped in a dead end job, existing in a shaky marriage with Jim, unable to move on after her brother’s suicide, Lucy was already living like a zombie even before Nadja arrived on the scene. Strangely, becoming a zombie is the thing that simplifies things to their most basic essence for her. Moments before the little group sneaks into the castle, Lucy asks Jim:

Lucy: What are we doing here?
Jim: We need to fix things.
Lucy: We’re married, right? There are some things in my life I’d like to take back. But I can’t take them back.

Jim’s pained expression tells us that it distresses him that she has to ask him if they are married and that he believes one of the things she’d like to change is being married to him. But he is wrong:

Lucy: There are some things in my life I’d like to take back. But I can’t take them back. I’d still be me. I’d still be here. I’d still be here with you.
(pause)
Jim: That’s right.

This simple little exchange is the thing that begins to break Lucy’s stupor more than anything else. Next time she speaks she tells Jim “I want to be over this. I want to move on. I want to stop smoking. Learn a new language. Go swimming. . . . Maybe we should have children.” These things that Lucy wants to change are specific choices. And comparatively simple choices as well. Lucy doesn’t want to deny her parentage and change who she is, she wants to stop smoking. She can’t bring back her brother no matter how hard she tries so better to lean on Jim and allow that relationship to grow. It’s unclear whether or not Lucy will be able to make the kinds of changes in her life that she envisions but the film ends with her and Jim tenderly embracing one another.

The film continues to play with the idea of identity when it investigates the forces at work in both the Dracula and Van Hellsing families. Both are dysfunctional and are marked by common things like betrayal, disappointment and fear. The question becomes how the children will move forward despite or even because of what their fathers have done. Dracula may be an infamous vampire but Van Hellsing is a murderer who has committed his own serious indiscretion. Both are men that lack “restraint.” Nadja, Edgar and Jim must all confront that fact.

My one complaint is that the movie is just too long. The last 30 minutes just drag on and on and with no particular purpose either. There are several scenes that feel like “I am a pretentious art film” shots more than anything else and it’s also fairly clear by that point that the film’s rousing message is “it doesn’t matter who your father is.” We really don’t need that point belabored.