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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" has always been one of my favorite horror movies,
mainly because it's one of the few that really seems to take itself
seriously. Often, even the best horror films, classics like "Psycho" and
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", include moments of leavening humor. Even
"The Exorcist" had Father Karras' film discussions with Detective
Not "Nosferatu". This is a film that spends every moment of its running
time shuddering along with the audience in fright and disgust at its
vampire and the plague he visits upon the innocent people of Bremen. E.
Elias Merhige's intensely imaginative "Shadow of the Vampire" offers an
intriguing explanation of the film's creepy hold.
It's 1921, and Murnau (John Malkovich), a kinky martinet obsessed with creating films as authentic as breathing, drags his crew to a moldering castle in Czechoslovakia for the filming of his vampire epic. There, the surprised crew meets Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), the actor playing the vampire, who, to say the least, has taken method to a new height. He is, in fact, a real vampire, who has made a bargain with Murnau. He will appear in the film, giving the director the realistic horror experience he so desires, if he is permitted to drink the blood of the leading lady in the final scene. Murnau grows increasingly obsessed with feeding his muse while Schreck settles for feeding himself, the body count mounting inexorably as Murnau struggles to finish his masterpiece while his leading man is finishing off the crew.
Steven Katz' script could likely have gotten by on its strikingly original premise alone, but fortunately, he turned what could have just been a corking black comedy into a surprisingly deep meditation on the dark power of the movies and the sacrifices one is willing to make, of oneself and others, in order to create art. Schreck is seen as a dessicated shambles, the ultimate embodiment of an actor past his sell-by date still clinging to his past glory, who, in a remarkable scene, talks about the sadness of reading "Dracula" and seeing how thoroughly his special hell has been misinterpreted and popularized. Of Of course, all the crew can say to this is, "What an actor." To them, Schreck is just another old hambone who can no longer distinguish fantasy from reality.
In one of the film's most poignant sequences, Schreck, who earlier expressed his yearning to once again see the light of the sun, watches film footage of a sunrise through a projector, staring right into the lens so the celluloid sunlight can wash over his face. It's a beautiful visualization of the powerful hold movies exert; everyone can remember memorable experiences that we've had through the motion picture camera, things we've done and places we've been to that we could not have gotten to any other way. Just because these experiences were only on film does not make them any less real to us.
Murnau, meanwhile, begins to emerge as the film's true monster, willing to do whatever it takes to see his vision fulfilled, sacrificing his crew, his cast, and his own humanity in the name of achieving immortality through art. Directors are often compared to God, and "Shadow of the Vampire" is one of the most effective variations on that theme that I have come across. Murnau, you see, is one of the old gods, and like those archaic deities, he demands blood.
Merhige helms this material marvelously, conveying a sense of menace and impending doom that make this a genuine horror film in addition to a clever meditation on the form. The film, for its low budget, has the feel of a true epic, with its castle looming up over the black hills, mossy brown-and-green cinematography, and heavy, ominous music. The supporting cast does a uniformly fine job, particularly Udo Kier, who invests "Nosferatu"'s producer, Albin Grau, with unspoken secrets that exist only behind his haunting eyes.
This film, however, is really a showcase for Malkovich and Dafoe, who deliver two knockout performances. Malkovich is the perfect control-freak director, calm and cajoling one moment, barking angry orders the next. He's even willing to shout down a bloodsucking beast if it will get him what he wants for his film. Dafoe, buried under a ton of makeup, projects a real character through his fangs and hissing, making Schreck pitiable, powerful, and frightening all at once. Dafoe received a much deserved Oscar nomination for his work here, and if Malkovich had been nominated as well, you would have heard no complaints from me.
"Shadow of the Vampire" gets a bit muddled in its final act, when Murnau finally confronts the vampire with his most powerful weapon. However, the final moments are so powerful, the last shot so chilling when you consider its implications, that the script's imperfections are subordinated by the power of the film's message. "Shadow of the Vampire" is a provocative picture that explores the depths to which creative people will sink, the cost in lives and their own soul they are willing to pay, just for a taste of immortality. One must beware. The taste is a lasting one. And sometimes bitter.
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.
The premise of "Shadow of a Vampire" is simple, what if Max Schreck was
really a vampire posing as an actor playing a vampire in the Murnau's
masterpiece, "Nosferatu?" Well, the result is both slightly scary and pretty
funny. Director E. Elias Merhige and writer Steven Katz create a fairly
creepy mood, and inhabit the picture with some real interesting
John Malkovich plays famous silent film director F.W. Murnau. This is perhaps the funniest performance of the bunch, especially when he is giving audible instructions to the "actors" while the camera is rolling. Then, there is Willem Dafoe who plays Max Schreck/ the vampire. It is incredibly fun to watch an almost unrecognizable Dafoe play this oddball, Max Schreck. Unfortunately for Murnau, Schreck starts doing what vampires tend to do... bite people. The original photographer dies along with a few others at the mouth of Schreck. After seeing this movie, it is quite easy to see why Dafoe was nominated for best supporting actor at the Oscars. His performance is worth the price of admission.
This is a film which is hard to classify, sense it is a fictional account of an actual film with real people. Yet this horror-comedy does have its moments of wonderful macabre humor along with great performances to help make it an enjoyable movie. A 7 out of 10. I highly recommend watching this as part of a double feature. First, watch Murnau's original 1922 masterpiece, "Nosferatu", then watch "Shadow of a Vampire." You will appreciate "Shadow of a Vampire" a lot more (or maybe vice versa).
Back in 1924, the silent movie Nosferatu was released. At the time (as now) it was the definitive expression of the timeless story of Count Dracula. There have been, of course, endless renditions of the 1896 Bram Stoker tale; however, Nosferatu was unique in that the medium of cinema was extremely new in 1924, and the maker had to deal with prejudices against this newfangled form of entertainment, which had to compete with the written word. Now, of course, a new Dracula film need not compete with the original story; it only needs to compete with earlier versions on film. This movie explains the story of how Nosferatu was produced. The director, F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich), is filming his masterpiece in Germany (the widow of the story's author refused to sign the rights to the story, so they couldn't film in Transylvania or use any of the names in the book). His choice to play the part of the vampire Nosferatu is Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), a beastly, hideous man who will appear to the cast and crew only in character (an early example of Method acting, to be sure). Shreck will not travel or bunk with the company; he will live only in the cave dwelling that the film's protagonist, Count Orlac, calls his home. With a leading man that eccentric, it's no wonder trouble appears on the set. People get sick, others appear listless and not quite into their work. Still, the tenacious Murnau pushes on. He must get his shot! His film must be completed! And as it progresses, he slips a little further into his own world, and Schrek - who, it has been said, played perhaps the ugliest vampire in film history - assumes more and more control over the direction of the movie (although not literally). Dafoe is unrecognizable in makeup, but the sinister creepiness he brings to most of his roles is evident here. It's an accomplished actor who can play a part in full makeup and still make the role distinguishable from... well, from some chump in a lot of makeup. Dafoe's excellent here, and his interplay with Malkovich is galvanizing. Their scenes together are like an actor's class on How To Emote and Project. There are times when each actor appears to ham it up slightly (or, in the case of Malkovich, more than slightly), but the two of them together constitute a casting coup. This is a wonderful little film, yet another that didn't quite get the acclaim it deserved. The atmosphere is both rich and compelling, both essential qualities for a film that's all about vampires from long ago. This is not a movie that's high on special effects, either; don't expect to see a lot of flash and fancy. It's also a homage to silent movies and to old-time horror films in general. It's a minimalist film in terms of set itself, but much is done with so little.
This movie is a true relief for everyone who thought the genre of horror and
mystery was dead and buried. It feels good to see that it's still possible
to create movies like this. Even though the plot is rather simple, the movie
seems to be very original and innovating. The basic idea behind this movie
is so simple that it is - in fact - brilliant and it makes me wonder why
nobody has thought about this earlier. The movie is completely based on the
very early horror milestone "Nosferatu, ein symphony des grauens". Legendary
actor Max Schrek is portrayed here like a REAL vampire who regularly takes a
bite out of his crew. Director F.W. Murnau knows about this but finishing
his movie is a higher priority to him than to sacrifice a few people.
This theme makes it of course a must for the ancient horror fans. Lots of footage and trivia of the 1922 masterpiece are shown and that's a real extra value for true cinema buffs ! But of course, this movie reaches far above average thanks to the brilliant performances. A totally disguised Willem Dafoe is absolutely amazing in his role of Max Shreck. It's like looking at the real Schrek...the resemblance is terrific. His appearance (especially the long nails) give you the creeps whenever he's on screen and his voice haunts your head every time he says something. Dafoe never gives away a bad performance but this one is extraordinary. And of course,the same can be said about John Malkovich...his portrayal of director F.W. Murnau is extremely realistic and believable. He plays Murnau as the man who slowly goes insane because he tries to be too perfect. An amazing performance !!
There aren't many shock effects to detect in this movie but that's rather normal, right ? After all, it's more like a costume-drama than it is horror. The lack of exiting scenes is made up by the constant presence of tension and an extremely appropriate atmosphere. Also, a perfect image of Eastern Europe in the 1920's is presented to the audience. All these aspects make a much better movie then just some ordinary slashing and slicing throats. A must see !!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This movie was truly disturbing... ...but not in graphics and horror.
This movie was disturbing in how it captured the true evil of the
legendary vampire and the unsettledness of a set that has been
portrayed by a perfectionist. A movie that captures such evil and
psychosis possesses the true, dark, nightmarish atmosphere that even
the best of horror films lack.
Willem Dafoe has given his best in this film. His dark aura that gave life to another villain he would later play -- the Green Goblin -- was perfect for the part of a deranged vampire who yearns from loneliness and hatred of his decomposing body. A being who is haunted by the loss of his past. Of his inability to make others like him, and be lonely no more. And yet, he is also a being that is always one step ahead of his demise, and manages to evade death and prevent his victims from escape with the same cunningness that would give him the part of one of the most evil of comic-book villains.
Though I've seen little of Malkovich, I thought that he played perfectly the part of the perfectionist. A perfectionist that is possessed by the desire of the perfect film that captures great evil and makes it's audience actually experience the feeling of a great dark presence. A film that 'doesn't make people say 'You should have been there', but that 'We have been there.'" A director whose desire of perfection puts the lives of even his most loyal of crew in the path of Death itself. A Death that has desires nowhere near as dark as the being that called upon it.
Such a film is nightmarish and heart-throbbing just by Shrek stepping from the hallow hallway and into the moonlight to welcome his 'guest'.
Rating: 9 out of 10. A truly disturbing film with atmosphere that remains dark, even during the day...
What if the lead character in the film Nosferatu really was a vampire?
Shadow of the Vampire explores this unusual concept as it follows the story
of the filming of the 1921 silent film classic. Malkovich plays the role of
Murnau, the German director who makes the bargain from hell to provide
realism to his Dracula knock-off, only to find that he has unleashed a
monster. This is a horror film that is really a psychological drama -- the
true horror lies in the man who decides no price is too high for the making
of his movie. At the same time, there's a lot of humor, as well as an
intriguing glimpse of Berlin in the decadent 1920s.
Dafoe is definitely an Oscar nominee with this performance (and the film should get an Oscar for his make-up, too): especially powerful scenes include his describing his reaction to reading the novel Dracula, by Bram Stoker; and a confrontation with Murnau near the end of the film, when Murnau finally is forced to recognize what he has done. Strong acting performances from the supporting actors as well -- Elwes' accent wanders, as does Malkovich's, but the cast (including native Germans) is generally strong. Some really nice cinematography and editing.
It adds to the experience to have seen the silent film first, by the way; it is well worth viewing in any case. It's available in a remastered print with a good soundtrack. "Shadow" takes a few liberties with the original film, but not important ones (those night scenes were obviously not shot at night, for example).
I loved this film -- two thumbs up!
Shadow of the takes the viewer to 1921 to "witness" the making of F. W.
Murnau's silent classic vampire film Nosferatu. Shadow of the Vampire does
not pretend to be a documentary; it is a highly stylized, fictional work
that delves into its very own imaginative speculations about a filmmaker's
Having assembled his crew, Murnau (John Malkovich) travels to a small town in Czechoslovakia, where he intends to recreate before his camera the story of Bram Stoker's "Dracula". Set on creating the most realistic vampire film, Murnau secretly recruits a real vampire (Willem Dafoe), promising to recompense the creature with leading lady Greta (Catherine McCormack). Murnau cautiously introduces the vampire to his producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier) and scriptwriter Henrick Galeen (John Gillet) as "Max Schreck", a truly professional "method actor" trained by Stanislavsky. Schreck performs his scenes suspiciously well, only appearing on the set at night and in character, keeping his end of the bargain with the director. Soon, however, his blood thirst takes over and he fearlessly threatens to eliminate, one by one, Murnau's most dispensable crew members.
Shadow of the Vampire stems from the premise that its protagonist, the fictional Murnau (Malkovich), must hire a real vampire in order to ensure a truly authentic representation of the vampire character, "Count Orlock", for his film Nosferatu. The viewer who seeks a more accurate portrayal of the making of the real Nosferatu may find this premise strained and far-fetched, and may even consider the film's ensuing humor a bit aimless. However, Shadow of the Vampire integrates the humorous premise to its metaphorical exploration of the artistic process and of the inevitable struggle between the star, the director and the crew. (In one scene, Schreck tries to secure his interests --a new victim-- by negotiating with Murnau. He reflects: "I don't think we need the writer any longer.") Aside from the film's complex treatment of the film within the film and of the character within the character (where Shadow of the Vampire re-presents Nosferatu, and Shadow's cast plays Nosferatu's cast), the film's most enjoyable aspect is its careful reconstruction of specific Nosferatu scenes. When demonstrating how Murnau shoots these well-known scenes, Shadow's own shots shift between black & white and color; from a full-frame to one enclosed by an iris. Shadow's recreation of the classic scenes are often accompanied by Murnau's off-screen voice-over instructions to the actors, who in turn stop in mid-shot, enter, or exit the frame. These choices offer a fantastic depiction of silent film technique, and they as well add new life and a sort of magical dimension to the original Nosferatu scenes. Undoubtedly, Shadow of the Vampire may be most fully appreciated by the viewer that has already developed a sensitive appreciation for Nosferatu's unforgettable images. Still, Shadow of the Vampire may be enjoyed as well by those fascinated by filmmaking or --as Shadow's Murnau put it-- by "the science of the creation of memory."
In 1922 filming of Murnau's movie `Nosferatu' has begun. Murnau has
recruited the mysterious Max Shreck to play the lead role. Crew fall ill
and Shreck never appears out of character or during the day. Fellow actor
Gustav believes Shreck is an intense method actor however Shreck is a real
vampire and has agreed to star in the film in exchange for the neck of the
leading lady when filming finishes. However Shreck's lust for blood
continues to grow throughout the shoot.
This is an inventive film that looks at how far art will go to create. The director Murnau seems as driven by the creative process as Shreck is by his lust for blood. This comparison is carried through the whole film until the inevitable showdown between the two drives. The setup itself is fascinating but the comparison between the two men makes it even better.
The film is well shot and uses the different cameras well. It looks really good and mixes bright shots with shadowy darkness really well. It also benefits from a good cast. Malkovich is excellent as the driven director who easily becomes a monster himself but Dafoe is even better. Despite being almost unrecognisable under the make up, Dafoe manages to bring humanity to his monster he also brings some humour without making his a comedy role. Elwes is underused, but Izzard is great as a bad 1920's actor!
Overall this may not inspire interest in everyone but it has a great cast and a good central story. The comparisons drawn between Murnau and Shreck only improve what is already a very enjoyable film.
First off, this is a much better movie if you have seen Murnau's
expressionist masterpiece, "Nosferatu". There are a number of scenes from
this movie that draw on "Nosferatu", and it makes a lot of the scenes more
enjoyable. The movie is done in very much an expressionist vein it itself,
the kind of film F.W. Murnau would certainly have appreciated.
The concept here is incredibly intriguing - what if a horror movie was a horror to film? Once the film kicks into gear, it establishes a rather creepy mood, especially in the sets, most of which mirror those of "Nosferatu" (the writer's bed, for instance, looks exactly like Hutter's).
As the film progresses, the actors take over the film, and it's interesting to see how they stack up to their precursors from 70 years ago. Eddie Izzard is an interesting Hutter (the Jonathan Harker analog), as (pretend) silent acting is well-tailored to his overbearing antics. Udo Kier is quite good as reserved producer Albin Grau. Alas, Cary Elwes, one of Hollywood's most underappreciated actors, is typecast as a kind of roguish, free-spirited Fritz Wagner, a real cinematographer (and the main one throughout all of "Nosferatu") and one of the stalwarts of German cinema into the 50's.
Malkovich is ideal for this role. He does a good job of being a manic, desparate for everything on his film to go right. His Murnau is a control-freak, a guy who keeps his crew in the dark, and adds to the generally creepiness.
The most curious thing about Murnau's "Nosferatu" is the vampire himself. The rest of the characters are pretty direct analogs of "Dracula". But instead of a suave, cool vampire of the Christopher Lee/Gary Oldman mold (later roles, of course), Murnau's vampire was a stiff, cold, violent monster. Willem Dafoe is absolutely brilliant in portraying this. He has some moments of comedic relief, bickering harmlessly with Malkovich, and generally being a fish out of water. Soon, however, his character becomes undeniably creepy, and Dafoe does a great job of making Count Orlok seem like the kind of guy who makes your skin crawl. In some way, this Orlok is less of a monster - he's portrayed a bit more sympathetically, sorrowing in his loneliness and never getting to see light. Murnau's vampire was almost always shot from below, making him appear huge and menacing; Dafoe's Orlok isn't monstrous so much as he just makes your skin crawl.
I do have a couple beefs, though, mainly technical. On a purely nitpicky level, Murnau is mentioned as a comtemporary of Griffith and Eisenstein, despite the fact that Eisenstein didn't make a movie until two years after "Nosferatu". On a less petty level, the characters seem a bit dumb. They have no problem accepting the fact that Orlok is an actual vampire once Malkovich tells them, but can't seem to figure it out on their own, despite seeing, among other things, Orlok pulling a bat out of the air and sucking the blood out of it.
The film, in general, does not end well. The penultimate scene is horribly contrived, a lot of silly reminiscing to to advance the plot a little. The ending itself isn't necessarily bad, just a bit ambigous. You don't come away with a clear sense of who (if anyone) was wronged amongst the main characters, and we leave a couple of them in limbo. A couple of technical details are odd, too. Murnau's Nosferatu has a shadow and a reflection, but this one only a shadow. Also, in the final scene they are supposedly filming, there's a wooden stake that's nowhere to be found in "Nosferatu".
A quick note, by the way - while the movie they are filming actually exists, rest assured the story is pure fantasy. Max Schreck went on to make more movies, as did the rest of the actors in this film, and no actors were bitten during the filming of the original movie.
A thououghly enjoyable film, especially if you're familiar with the subject matter.
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