"Shadow of the Vampire" has such an inventive, original idea that I am almost
willing to recommend it based on its premise. Unfortunately, like most great
ideas, it does not fully exploit it for all its worth, and seems to skim past
some missed opportunities resulting in a fairly bland movie that may please
some movie buffs, yet will mostly annoy everyone else.
"Shadow of the Vampire" is a fictional behind-the-scenes look at the making
of one of the greatest, most realistic vampire films ever made, "Nosferatu,"
which was released back in 1922. John Malkovich stars as F.W. Murnau, the
madly eccentric, madly obsessed film director of "Nosferatu," itself based on
the famed Bram Stoker novel though changes were made to avoid being sued by
Stoker's widow. As the film begins, Murnau has just completed studio shots
for his latest endeavor ("Thank God, an end to this artifice!"), and is ready
to shoot outdoor night shots in the countryside and on an island to capture
the necessary realism for the tale. All they need is a vampire and Murnau has
found one, an actor named Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) who lives in an
abandoned monastery. Murnau claims the actor studied under Stanislavsky from
the Max Reindhardt troupe. The crew is afraid of this gauntlike, bald
creature who fits the role all too well, and needs no makeup! Gradually, we
discover that Schreck is not an actor at all, he is a real vampire and has
his eye on the lead actress Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack), who will
have herself sacrificed to the vampire in the final scene of the script!
Murnau knows Schreck is a vampire and their unusual contract stipulates that
Schreck continue his feeding habits until after the shoot (a bottle of blood
and small animals are used as alternative food items). Naturally, Schreck is
too hungry for blood and ends up devouring not only bats but the neck of a
cinematographer. He also has the desperate need to acquire the neck of Greta.
The contract is unheeded but it doesn't seem to matter - Murnau has become so
obsessed with his opus that he hardly cares about anyone and appears as
monstrous as the creature himself.
The pacing is off in "Shadow of the Vampire" as the transitions between
scenes seem choppy at best. This makes the overall film rather monotonous
until Dafoe shows up, and he brings the film out of its drunken stupor with
his vibrantly alive performance. It is still not enough as the visual style
of the film seems unimaginative with grainy colors and several darkly lit
scenes. Some of the black-and-white scenes of the actual filming of the
film-within-the-film are wonderful yet brief.
As written by newcomer Steven Katz, "Shadow of the Vampire" has scant
evidence of insight into Murnau's crew members and Murnau's private life - we
just see that he is a morphine addict who envisions cinema as "everlasting
life." Malkovich mostly yells but there is not much more to his performance
(his intoxicatingly emotional final scene is exceptionally well done). It
also doesn't help that the film makes a case for the similarity between
vampires and filmmakers - they are out to sell their souls to bring life into
their own encapsulated world, or as Murnau exclaims, "It does not exist
unless it is in the lens." I just don't see the overall connection as being
fully realized as it should have been.
The rest of the cast is perfunctory at best. Eddie Izzard as the Jonathan
Harker character barely has much screen time and mysteriously disappears from
the film. Catherine McCormack has a few breathtaking moments as Greta and we
understand that her character chooses the theatre over cinema, but that is
it. Cary Elwes is unmemorable as the substitute cinematographer (he also
appeared in Coppola's "Dracula"), and Udo Kier (a former Warhol regular)
merely glides by the screen as the financially obsessed producer. Kier does
have a funny scene where he describes having once seen someone pull ectoplasm
out of their mouth.
That leaves Dafoe who gives a tour-de-force performance as the enigmatic
Schreck. He gyrates, frowns, smiles, has arch-like eyebrows, long
fingernails, and a general frailty that lends sympathy to the "rat-like
bastard," as Murnau excitedly claims while shooting a scene. Dafoe projects
such a chilling, eerie demeanor that you can't help but be both frightened
and fascinated by him. It is such a superb performance that one must see it
just to believe it. The film, though, is a mere shadowy reflection of what
made "Nosferatu" the silent classic it is today.
Copyright © 2000 Jerry Saravia