Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

D: E. Elias Merhige
S: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe

Clever and funny comic horror inspired by the making of the 1922 classic Nosferatu. Dripping with in-jokes from the outset (from a script by Steven Katz), the film has a striking atmosphere which captures the tone of the fantastic very effectively. It hesitates somewhere between reality and surreality, using the process of filmmaking itself as an organising metaphor and a dividing line between the two (which frequently slips). This allows it to teeter on the edge of complete farce while going for moments of genuine eeriness at the same time and also to sneak in its thematic musings quite naturally. It doesn't always get the balance right and is never truly scary, but there are some great moments along the way and an astonishing performance from Willem Dafoe which has to be seen to be believed.

German director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) sets out to make his unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula with the help of a nervous producer (Udo Kier), a confused writer (Aden Gillet), a leading lady affected by 1920s ennui (Catherine McCormack), a clueless leading man (Eddie Izzard), and a crew of nervous people who are not quite certain what their director has got them into. Things become especially complicated when Murnau reveals the mysterious, reclusive Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), whom he has hired in a shroud of secrecy to portray the vampire. This method actor ('from the Reinhardt troupe') refuses to come out in daylight, does all his preparation away from seeing eyes, and is so immersed in his role that he will only respond to the name of his character, Count Orlok. When the cameraman begins to fall ill and the cast and crew find themselves uncomfortable with Max' extremely naturalistic performance, they begin to wonder if perhaps reality and fantasy are so far apart.

Shadow of the Vampire has some delightful scenes designed to appeal to film buffs. Its use of a mixture of reconstruction and actual footage from Nosferatu is slickly done and very disarming. The very fact that it revisits a perennial favourite is bound to raise happy smiles among the cognoscenti. It is beautifully shot and makes terrific use of the mechanics and logistics of filmmaking to provide unusual scenes and angles. Not only does it reconstruct sequences from Murnau's film, it parodies and appropriates from it whenever the moment suits, including one hilarious scene where Schreck attempts to stalk the leading lady in a guest house (creeping up the walls in shadow just like in the film), only to find locked doors at every turn. The film is so self-involved that its entire world-view is filtered through the cinema itself (there is almost no sense of the Germany of the early 1920s in which the film was made apart from one or two cabaret sequences early on). Even thematically this is a film about film (cinema as vampire, vampire as cinema), and in this sense it really is a movie best appreciated by those who love movies.

It is perhaps too much of a film buff's movie for its own good though. It doesn't take a great deal of knowledge to spot some glaring inaccuracies (such as when Kier compares Murnau the world famous Russian director Sergei Eisentein, who would not make a film until 1925!), and for a film which takes the grandaddy of all horror films as its muse, it is never frightening. It is also structurally unstable and begins to come apart about half way through (as the crew begin to die off very quickly and the climax seems to come all too quickly). Though it has many funny scenes and many which are meant to be dramatic, it never quite manages to get a grip on the viewer as anything more than one big in-joke which lets itself in for trouble by asking that you're in on the gag from the opening scene.

It is an enjoyable movie though, precisely because it is clever with its source material. There are some standout moments which could become clip classics (such as the filming of the dinner scene where the hero cuts his thumb) and the actors get the pitch just about right all the way through. Malkovich (Being John Malkovich) can't hold his accent, but he does make an effectively obsessive Murnau (at least as far as a the film is concerned: this is not a biography after all). Support from McCormack and Izzard is flavourful without being condescending and Cary Elwes (Twister) has an amusing cameo as a crazed cameraman armed with a pistol he uses to get frightened reactions from extras (a trick reputedly used by William Friedkin on The Exorcist). The best turn in the picture comes from Dafoe though (The Last Temptation of Christ, The English Patient).

Physically astonishing both in terms of make-up and his control of posture, gesture, and facial expression, he is a very convincing Schreck/Orlok and is able to play the comedy and drama equally well. His first appearance is a marvellous moment, which director E. Elias Merhige milks for every second of suspense and unreality he can wring from it. From then on his presence is magnetic and he commands the screen whenever he's on it. He is funny in the comic scenes, scary in the horror scenes (he's scary even if the movie isn't), and has you believing in the character in a way which is essential to the film's overall effect. There is even an effective bid for pathos about half way through in which he waxes lyrical on the loneliness of the novel Dracula from a vampire's perspective (which his colleagues are enormously impressed by as a bit of in-depth character research). Yes a lot of it is costume and make-up, but the actor makes the most of the tools at his disposal and he is almost as unforgettable in this as Schreck himself was in Nosferatu (a performance famously replicated also by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's 1979 remake).

This is finally quite a light film though. Despite some clunky moments of darkness worked through (including a sub-text about drugs which doesn't really come across all that clearly), it is primarily a comedy. This is unfortunate given the number of potentially frightening scenes which it sets up and the irresistible premise which inevitably has you wondering 'what if...' It is best approached with the expectation of some harmless in-jokey fun, but even on that level it's not up to the likes of Ed Wood. Thematically it holds its centre all the way through, and it comes to a logical and inevitable conclusion in which the boundaries between creation and exploitation are finally crossed and reality (which is fantasy to us, of course) comes crashing in (when the vampire runs amok). It's still funny on this level though rather than deeply meaningful, because right down to its final frames it plays the in-joke card and asks for an indulgent giggle.

Casual viewers will probably laugh a lot less. Whether or not they're scared is another matter entirely. If you do find the film's rich atmosphere to be eerie enough to unsettle you, then it could turn into a very nice evening's chilling fun. It does try hard, and it looks the part. It is very well put together on what seems quite a low budget (it seems as much necessity as design that the cast and crew get smaller as the picture within the picture goes on: in fact it gives the impression of having been rushed in the end). Yet despite its almost textbook attempt to keep the viewer uncertain as to the veracity of events and thus lost in the realm of the fantastic, it never really raises the hairs on the back of your neck the way it ought to. It is a lot of fun, yes, and it is conceptually and thematically clever. It is a pity it doesn't take hold of the imagination quite the way its inspiration does though. You are always conscious of just how clever and postmodern it is, and in that sense you are a bit too distanced from it emotionally for it to be truly gripping. It is still worth seeing, and, as noted, film buffs will enjoy watching such a loving and creative homage to a genuine classic even if this film is very much in its shadow.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.