[box cover]

Shadow of the Vampire

In 1922 German filmmaker F.W. Murnau released Nosferatu: a Symphony of Horror, his not-entirely-legal take on Bram Stoker's Dracula. With Nosferatu, Murnau sought to create the shining example of the realistic vampire movie. He did more than that — he created a masterpiece, a work of art that four generations later still appeals as one of the finest silent films and one of the greatest vampire features to ever flicker before our eyes. That much is well known. What's also known is that the actor who played Count Orlock, the vampire, was a mysterious fellow who went by the possibly pseudonymous moniker "Max Schreck." His depiction of the bestial vampire is one of the icons of horror cinema.

What is not widely known is one important fact — in his obsession to make a realistic vampire movie, Murnau made a Faustian bargain with a real vampire, a centuries-lonely being thirsty for human blood. In exchange for the neck of his leading lady, Murnau hoped to fulfill his own notion of immortality. "Max Schreck" was, in fact, the ultimate Method actor, a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire. However, because he had been a vampire for a lot longer than he'd been a movie star, certain complications arose as Murnau's crew started disappearing. Indeed, few in Murnau's company survived to see the film's final edit. But this was Art, and Art is worth dying for. Murnau demanded that his work transcend mere temporal limitations and outlive them all. He got his wish. And as for "Max Schreck" . . . man, what a performance!

By turns humorous and grimly perverse, that's the alternate-history premise behind Shadow of the Vampire (2000), starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck. How do we classify this movie — dark fantasy? backstage noir? roman á fang? Malkovich's Murnau is not only an imperious artiste, he's also a drug addict, a pain-is-pleasure impresario, and a man for whom cinema is a holy vessel with himself as its monsignor. Devotees of the authentic Murnau and his work might rightly find Shadow of the Vampire disagreeable — one of our finest critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum, resented how this "stupid and demeaning fantasy ... trashes the history, personality, taste, craft, and artistry (and, incidentally, even the sexuality) of Murnau, one of the greatest silent directors" — although as a fantasy concoction here's a role made for Malkovich's lizard-like qualities, especially as "Herr Doktor" slips into all-consuming madness.

The more memorable performance, though, is Dafoe's. Through layers of makeup depicting the rat-faced, undead Schreck, a vampire who turns not into a bat but, worse, a demanding prima donna, Dafoe doesn't go over the top, though he does plant his flag at the summit. He received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nom, which surprised many who'd never even heard of the film.

Catherine McCormack is Greta, the career-conscious actress who Murnau, an ex-lover, has promised to Schreck as his last and greatest paycheck. Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard, and Udo Kier round out the leads.

On the technical level, the period detail and ambiance are striking, evoking 1921 Europe at the birth of cinema artistry. Knowledge of the source material is not required to enjoy the film, but the more you know about the real Nosferatu, both onscreen and behind the scenes, the more you can tune into director E. Elias Merhige's vision, whether of not you appreciate it. Merhige and his designers are faithful to details — names, locations, sets and camerawork from the original movie — that they didn't have to get right, things that only Nosferatu junkies would notice. You have to appreciate that kind of conscientious anal retentiveness.

But what end does that conscientiousness serve? Does Shadow of the Vampire succeed as a good-enough story well-enough told? Only just. Although barely 90 minutes long, its pacing is choppy and there's a sense that this final theatrical print is some three-quarters of a longer, stronger movie. By the closing credits there's too much we still don't know and we've been kept at arm's length from the characters, who would benefit from further, pardon me, fleshing out. As a result, the almost horrific climax comes this close to tipping the whole thing over into unforgivable absurdity. Shadow hits that edge and teeters on it, but manages to stay on the right side of the line. And its overarching metaphor, pointing to some vampiric nature inherent in filmmaking ("You and I are not so different," the observant vampire informs Murnau), smacks of collegiate preciousness. So the whole isn't as satisfying as some of its parts.

That said, for my money the conversation between Schreck and two of Murnau's men, recounting the vampire's reaction to reading Bram Stoker's novel, is one of the great scenes in vampire cinema.

*          *          *

Universal's DVD edition of Shadow of the Vampire delivers a high-quality print with fine definition and contrast, a must for a film that spends almost all of its time in dark rooms and subdued lighting. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is solid, as is the audio in either DD or DTS 5.1.

The scene-by-scene commentary from director Merhige is occasionally erudite and thought-provoking. We learn that producer Nicolas Cage took such a liking to Steven Katz's script that he made Shadow the first release of his new production house, Saturn Films. Cage had been attracted to Merhige's dark hallucinogenic fantasia Begotten and selected him to direct. Still, at times Merhige is so full of himself that he comes across as a parody of Herr Director pretension.

Also on the disc are a six-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; short interviews with Dafoe, Merhige, and Nicolas Cage; a vampire makeup photo montage; a production scrapbook photo montage; Shadow's theatrical trailer and the trailer for Merhige's Begotten ("makes Eraserhead look like Ernest Saves Christmas"); production notes; and talent files. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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