News & Features » Miscellany

"Shadow of the Vampire" is a film even non-horror fans can sink their teeth into.

Dracula Reborn


In the intriguing history of cinema, there's an unusual intersection where both true students of the art of filmmaking and cult horror fans meet in awe — F. W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic "Nosferatu." Shot largely on location, "Nosferatu" was an experiment in "open-air" German expressionism. Spinning off that classic is E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire." Predicated on artifice, Merhige's movie explores a compelling premise: What if the world's first great vampire film turned out to be something akin to a documentary? Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz (who came up with the idea) expand that eerie premise by posing an ancillary thought: What if obsessive director Murnau actually uncovered a "real" vampire to take on the name of Max Schreck and play the king of the undead? At first, "Shadow of the Vampire" seems a montage of period details as we watch and wait, unsure of exactly what we're waiting for. There's also a faint air of pretense and self-consciousness that's quickly augmented by the presence of John Malkovich as Murnau. Some of Malkovich's unwieldy dialogue adds to the moives mannered feel. Lines like "Our battle, our struggle is to create art, our weapon is the motion picture," don't help matters. Nor does Murnau's preparatory speech to leading lady Greta Schroeder ("Braveheart's" Catherine McCormack) that "the ultimate expression of love is the most exquisite pain." Malkovich's Murnau delights in keeping his cast and crew in the dark. When art director Alben Grau (Udo Kier) comes to him with a plethora of worries — Who will play Count Orlock? What clothes will he need? What makeup? — Murnau explains away any further questions or concerns. You see, the actor Max Schreck is an early devotee of the Stanislavski school of method acting. For the sake of reality, Schreck will never step out of character, explains Murnau. He will appear always in full makeup and costume, and can only be filmed at night. His leading lady soon finds out what a literal pain-in-the-neck method actors can be. Once Willem Dafoe enters the frame as Schreck, the movie finds its off-kilter rudder and becomes a veritable garden of unearthly delights. Complete with nasty elongated fingernails which he obsessively clicks together, Dafoe mesmerizes us. Equally sinister as he is vain and silly, Dafoe's vampire-turned-actor is a charming mix of old-school dignity and unstoppable bloodlust. We sit transfixed by Dafoe's talented creation. We in the audience may be transfixed, but the cast on screen certainly isn't. All that talk of Schreck's being deeply into character just isn't cutting it as Schreck's demeanor slowly begins to unsettle them. We can see that Schreck would love to feast upon his leading lady, but Murnau is able to forestall him for the good of the movie. "Wait until we've finished shooting," bargains Murnau, ready to sacrifice everything and anyone for his art. To which Schreck responds, "I don't think we need the writer anymore." All of this drives Murnau into a grumpy rage and unleashes a variety of uninspired plot devices we would normally deride except that they give Dafoe's thoroughly incredible creation more screen time. Part of the clever fun of "Shadow" comes from drawing certain similarities between filmmakers/producers and bloodsucking creatures of the night. But that's fodder for the cinema students and film pundits. What makes "Shadow of the Vampire" worth seeing again and again is Willem Dafoe's petulant perfection as Max Schreck.

Add a comment