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Shadow of the Vampire

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Shadow of the Vampire

Starring: Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Rated: R
RunTime: 93 Minutes
Release Date: January 2001
Genres: Drama, Horror

*Also starring: Cary Elwes, Stephen Fry, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
2½ stars out of 4

It's the early 1920s and German silent filmmaker F.W. Murnau is about to make the world's first vampire movie. His script is ready and he's assembled a top-notch cast and crew willing to follow him on an eerie location shoot in Eastern Europe. What they don't know is that, in order to make his production as realistic as possible, Murnau has done something quite unusual. For the crucial lead role in the horror epic, he's hired a real vampire.

"Shadow of the Vampire" takes a skewed look at the making of the seminal film, "Nosferatu," and the determination of the legendary director behind it. While the movie fumbles when trying to make grand statements about the creative process, it works very well as a straightforward black comedy and homage to early cinema.

"Nosferatu" seems a natural for fanciful speculation. Details are sketchy on the life of F.W. Murnau, who made 22 films before dying in a car wreck at the age of 42 (according to Kenneth Anger's "Hollywood Babylon," the driver of the car was an underage Filipino lad that Murnau was "servicing" when the Packard leapt off the road). Murnau based his most well-known film on Bram Stoker's "Dracula," but had to change the character names due to legal problems with Stoker's estate. So Count Dracula became Count Orlock, a feral thing light years from the elegant Prince of Darkness that became a cinema standard a decade later. Orlock was played by Max Schreck, once described as "an actor of little distinction." Virtually nothing is known about the man.

Screenwriter Steven Katz found the mystery captivating. "About 10 or 11 years ago I became very interested in 'Nosferatu,'" he said. "I especially liked the fact that the film looks incredibly realistic to the point that you almost think you are watching an old documentary about a vampire. I then got the idea of what would happen if the actor playing the vampire in the film was really a vampire. As it happens, Schreck is the German word for shriek or fright it seemed a little too pat. I started to do some research on Murnau and I saw this amazing picture of him filming all his crew were wearing lab coats and goggles. From that I got the idea of Murnau really treating the whole thing as a documentary, as a scientific project."

Enter "Shadow of the Vampire" director E. Elias Merhige, who dutifully outfits his "filmmakers" in lab coats and goggles while recreating the look of "Nosferatu." The story is as simple as the conceit is ingenious, following the production of the film, with Murnau explaining to his cast that Schreck is a fiercely dedicated method actor, trained by Stanislavsky himself, who will only appear in full make-up, at night, while remaining in character. In fact, Murnau has cut a deal with his vampire star; if he behaves until the film is completed, he will be rewarded with the leading lady's neck. Schreck can't manage to control himself, of course, leading to horror and gallows humor as Murnau struggles to finish his opus before his star finishes the cast and crew.

None of this could work without the right actors and "Shadow of the Vampire" boasts a fine group, led by John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck. Actually, the teaming of Malkovich and Dafoe, two phenomenally talented, but decidedly creepy performers, is a scary notion all by itself. Had Merhige also hired Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken, he could have made a horror film without a script simply by outfitting the four men in black and saying, "Okay boys, mingle."

Malkovich is at his reptilian best as the perfectionist director, but is burdened by having to recite lines intended to make a statement about creative obsession, stilted lines like "If it isn't in the frame, it doesn't exist." Dafoe, on the other hand, gets to deliver one juicy sentence after another in the role of a lifetime. He finds the perfect pitch for Schreck, playing the character broadly without ever going over the top. In one wonderful scene, he explains that the romance of the Dracula novel saddens him, because real vampires, by nature, end up detached from mankind. "Can he even remember how to buy bread?" Schreck muses. "How to select wine and cheese?" At that moment, the monster becomes more human than anyone else in the story, which highlights the weakness of the film.

Despite a tendency to confuse glibness with substance, "Shadow of the Vampire" is still a treat, courtesy of its clever premise, rich music and cinematography, and an enthusiastic cast gleefully overdoing their German accents. Fans of "Nosferatu" can rejoice. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Willem Dafoe, Max Schreck lives.

Copyright 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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