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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

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1.  Steve Rhodes review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
2.  Edward Johnson-Ott read the review movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
3.  Harvey Karten read the review ---
4.  Jerry Saravia read the review ---

Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

Is E. Elias Merhige's SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE a vampire movie, or is it a movie about a vampire movie or is it a spoof of a vampire movie? Yes. And the film, which stars John Malkovich as director F.W. Murnau and an unrecognizable Willem Dafoe as "actor" Max Schreck, who "plays" the vampire Count Orlock, is deliciously funny as it takes itself quite seriously. The clever script by first-time screen writer Steven Katz manages to eschew gore and rely instead on a wickedly humorous relationship between Murnau and the vampire, with whom Murnau has made a Faustian bargain.

In 1921 in Eastern Europe, Murnau is making a movie called NOSFERATU, starring a real vampire, who is given the stage name of Max Schreck. Not telling his crew the truth, Murnau, a lab jacket wearing director whom the crew refers to as Herr Doctor, explains that Schreck is such an intense method actor that he wears no make-up, works only at night and is to be called only by his character's name of Count Orlock.

The director approaches the movie as if he were a blend of Sir Isaac Newton and Cecil B. DeMille. "We are scientifically engaged in the creation of memory," he lectures those around him. After Murnau enlists local peasants for supporting roles, his producer, Albin Grau (Udo Kier), complains that they can't act, but the director sets him straight. "They don't need to act," Murnau barks at him. "They need to be."

Actors in silent movies were forced to use exaggerated gestures in order to compensate for the absence of language. Dafoe, in a performance worthy of Oscar consideration, has a blast chewing up the scenery in the silent movie-within-the-movie in which he spends a large portion of his screen time. With knobby, pencil-like fingers, long, gray fingernails, dog-eaten ears and a bald head like a small meteorite, Dafoe looks so funny that you're ready to laugh before he even moves or speaks.

As the crew becomes suspicious, the producer confronts the director, demanding to know more about their lead actor. On location for his first scene, the count emerges from a stone hole as the camera rolls. "Where did you find him really," the producer insists. "In that hole," the director replies, matter-of-factly.

The best part of the film is the bombastic chemistry between vampire and director. "I'd like some make-up," the count squeaks before filming starts. "Well, you don't get any!" his director chides him as a parent would a bad boy. In another, Murnau gets angry at his star for eating important members of the crew, which means that the production company has to bear the cost of replacing them. "Why don't you eat the script girl?" Murnau suggests, since she is more expendable. "The script girl," the count says, pausing to think, "I'll eat her later."

Since in real life F.W. Murnau was a famous director who did indeed make a film called NOSFERATU, perhaps SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE is more than a mere comedy. Maybe it all happened just this way. As they say, fact is stranger than fiction.

SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE runs a fast 1:32. It is rated R for some sexuality, drug content, violence and language and would be acceptable for teenagers.

Copyright 2001 Steve Rhodes

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