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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Some of my fellow critics wear other hats as interviewers. In addition to writing their pungent reviews, they take their places either at roundtables or one-on-one's to chat with the celebrities and then post their impressions on their web sites or print media or radio programs. Whenever they ask me why I don't add such conferences to my scibbles, I answer that the stars come out at night: when you see them across a table under hotel lighting they lose their luster. They look almost like normal, everyday people. I want to look up to them while they are larger than life on the big screen. One of my concerned colleagues followed up with an observation that got me thinking: "What if an actor came to your interview completely in character, make-up and all, and talked with you as though he or she were still the person played in the movie?" Yep. I'd welcome that.

This is the very concept worked on successfully by E. Elias Merhige in his "Shadow of the Vampire," a shocking, funny work, wholly original in so many aspects of its execution. Avoiding the deadly dull talking-heads documentary style while at the same time evoking the spirit of a great director, "Shadow of the Vampire" is a largely fictionalized, expressionistic portrait of F.W. Murnau, whose 1922 picture "Nosferatu" became the model for all succeeding movies on the Dracula theme. That was the picture that made Bela Lugosi a far better-known name than Max Schreck, whose toothy performance is the archetype. Using an unrecognizable Willem Dafoe in the role of the obscure German actor Max Schreck and Steppenwolf-stepped performer John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau, Merhige captures the essence of an obsessed helmer pitted both with and against a person who in real life may be no different from the role he performs. We see the "Nosferatu" movie in black and white through the lens of Murnau's camera, shifting to color when Merhige highlights the off-camera activities of the cast.

The seven-feet-tall homosexual Murnau (who died in a car accident en route from L.A. to Monterey at the age of 42) may not really resemble John Malkovich, who in this pix is dolled up with yet another of the many rugs that a studio cosmetics team pastes on the spirited actor's bald pate. But Willem Dafoe does an uncanny, off-the-wall, splendid performance as Count Orlock--the name which Murnau gives to the bloodsucker because Bram Stoker's estate had refused him permission to make a movie from Stoker's novel, "Dracula." Murnau's "Nosferatu," the world's first vampire movie, was distinguished as well by being shot on location rather than wholly in studios--that latter being the more typical method used by the German expressionist school of film makers.

Filmed in Luxembourg, "Shadow of the Vampire" deals with the shooting of the film "Nosferatu" on location in Eastern Europe. Murnau has assembled a cast of performers and a support crew who only some time into the shooting are introduced to the title character played by the unknown Max Schreck. Who is this guy Schreck? Schreck is an eccentric person (to say the least), a figure with longer fingernails than any U.S. parlor today would dare paste onto a fashionable woman's fingers. He frequently clicks the nails together, particularly when he is entertaining obsessive thoughts about the attractive and full-of-herself actress Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack). From time to time his eyes bulge, accenting his amazingly long parrot-nose. In both looks and actions, he spooks everyone around him. Murnau explains to the crew that Schreck is a method actor who remains in character at all times. This becomes apparent to the most thickheaded member of the cast when Schreck catches a bat with his bare hands and devours the creature in seconds. During the daylight hours, he remains in a coffin.

While the production notes reveal the secret of the bizarre performer's identity, Merhige, using a clever script by Steven Katz, would do well to conceal the man's singularity from the audience. Let the viewers guess whether the bald, pointy- headed weirdo is in fact this obscure Max Schreck (who on the stage was associated with Max Reinhardt's Berlin company), or whether he is in fact undead, a creature who has unlived a lonely and tortured existence for centuries.

Merhige's direction of John Malkovich is fine, though Malkovich does not take on the accent that would be expected from the Bielefeld-born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe Murnau. Malkovich does convey the obsessiveness of the director, whose camera was like his third eye--regularly rolling, capturing details that are not in the "Nosferatu" script even more eagerly than those which belong to the story he is helming. We do not, however, sense the fear that Murnau must have borne whenever he believes that his count is not really an actor's portrayal but an actual vampire determined to make corpses of his crew. Willem Dafoe, however, gives an Oscar-worthy imitation of a vampire (?) portraying Max Schreck who is portraying a vampire. Dafoe seems to come out of the twenties (whether we refer to the 1920s or the 1520s is up to the viewers to figure out). The entire expressionistic stylization emerges from his vividly ugly features as he gives objective expression to inner experience in the true mode of the German school. "Shadow of the Vampire" could well be considered the most compelling vampire movie made since 1922. Imagine doing an interview with an actor who not only stays in character but who actually IS the character he portrays!

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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