Shadow of the Vampire is a film about the making of a German all time classic silent horror-movie from 1922 called Nosferatu-Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu-a Symphony of Horror). The production of Nosferatu had to deal with a lot of strange things (some crew members disappeared, some died). This movie focuses on the difficult relationship between Murnau, the director, and Schreck, the lead actor. Written by
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that completely and maybe consciously defies categorization, and "Shadow of the Vampire" is a great example. It is at once a black comedy, a horror movie with a unique setting, and a biting sendup of the art and business of moviemaking. And the fact is that it wears each of these hats quite well, although not necessarily at the same time.
The movie asks us to imagine: What if Max Schreck, the mysterious guy who gave what is still considered one of the best vampire performances ever, did so well because, well, he really was a vampire? The skulking creature, we are to imagine, was finagled into performing in "Nosferatu" for legendary cinema pioneer F.W. Murnau. The story then follows as the crew makes the movie dealing with all sorts of difficulties, not the least of which is the star's habit of snacking on cameramen.
Among the film's many virtues is its portrayal of filmmaking in what was really its dawn as a form of art and commerce. People like me, who have trouble with silent movies may gain an additional appreciation for the work and craft that went in to them, and realize that while they may seem hokey and stylized to us now, they had a beauty and substance that was all their own, and still is.
John Malkovich turns in a great performance as the visionary Murnau (who, while tortured, must be a genius because he always gets it in one take). It is a characteristic Malkovich role, a rationalist given to bouts of fury, and it is as much fun to see him discourse pretentiously on the science and art of the moving image as it is to see him pitch a fit ("Albon, a NATIVE has wandered into my FRAME!").
The core of this movie, however, and deservedly so, is Willem Dafoe's unforgettable portrayal of Schreck. This is not your slick-talking Anne-Rice undead-Vogue kinda vampire. Schreck is the next thing up from a rat, squatting in filth and clicking his claws, and Dafoe is able to inspire laughter as well as fear, and even pathos. He makes us imagine what a rotten existence it must be, to have eternal life alone in a rotting ruin and a withered body. He and Malkovich have some great scenes together, including a sick, hilarious moment when Schreck and Murnau try to hammer out who on the crew may or may not be snacked upon (the cinematographer is necessary, it seems, but the script girl is negotiable).
The movie functions best as a sendup of moviemaking, as the harried Murnau must deal with temperamental actors, unfriendly locals, blood-sucking undead, and other hazards of the movie trade. At one point, Murnau must leave to calm the investors, a scene I really wish had been included. Some of the best moments are those of the age-old creature of the night attempting to take direction and find his "motivation." Everyone is afraid of Schreck, but admire the dedication that keeps him in character all the time (he's a Method actor, explains Murnau, he studied with Stanislavsky). The movie makes its point rather neatly, that filmmakers, and by extension filmmaking itself, have a way of sucking the life and blood out of you. Anyone who has ever had to shoot a movie on location will attest to this.
If I have a complaint about the movie, it is only that after its extreme cleverness, it settles for a somewhat straightforward horror-style denouement. Myself, I would have thought the vampire would end up moving to Berlin and getting an agent, a swimming pool, and a meeting with Ovitz. Still, the movie clearly makes its point: an auteur driven by a mania for artistic perfection can be more of a monster than something that just lives in a cave and drinks blood from your neck.
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