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.