Shadow Of The Vampire (2000)

MAY 14, 2010


Not sure when or why I bought Shadow Of The Vampire, but I’m pretty sure I’ve owned it for at LEAST 5 years. It doesn’t appear to be a used copy (no video store labels on it), though it wasn’t in shrink wrap either (I don’t usually take off the wrap until I sit down to watch it - easier to tell which ones I haven’t seen yet). Maybe I borrowed it from someone? Eh, whatever. All I know is, a few folks have recommended it over the past couple years (including HMAD reader ColinB), so I decided to finally make good on whatever inspired me to obtain it in the first place.

The concept is brilliant - What if Nosferatu star Max Schreck was really a vampire? Furthermore, what if F.W. Murnau knew that and didn’t care, because he knew it would help him make his perfect vampire movie? It’s an awesome concept; one I can’t believe something similar hadn’t really been done before (at least to my knowledge).

But the execution is a bit... off. It never really kicks into any higher gear than the one it’s in from the second Schreck (Willem Dafoe, in a justifiably Oscar nominated performance) appears; even the climax more or less boils down to yet another scene of Schreck attacking someone in the crew while Murnau (John Malkovich) shows more concern for his film than the well being of his colleagues. Perhaps a subplot with one of the other crew members digging around, or more with the locals who know about Schreck’s true nature, could have helped add a bit of tension and suspense that the film sort of lacks.

Also, Steven Katz’s script sort of tries to fit into two different versions of history. Obviously in the real world, Nosferatu was completed and is a classic film, but Max Schreck is not a real vampire and did not really die at the end of production. Yet the film presents both as fact, instead of just going with one or the other. It could have said that Max was really just a crazy actor, with the plot twist being that there was no supernatural activity whatsoever. OR, since he was obviously playing with history, he could have pulled an Inglourious Basterds and just went gonzo at the end, tossing history out completely and having Schreck kill everyone (including Murnau) and finishing the film himself or something. Instead, it’s like “well, let’s just assume the audience doesn’t know anything about Max Schreck and only make shit up with regards to him. Everything else is true.”

And while I don’t know Nosferatu enough to be sure, I’m sure they could have played with the idea of flubs in the film, showing that they were the result of mishaps on set caused by Schreck trying to eat someone. Like, for example, according to the IMDb, there’s a shot in the film where you can see a crew member waving some cloth around on the side of the frame - this could have been imagined as a crew member being attacked by Schreck, with the cloth being a loose part of his clothing as he flailed about. Die hard fans of the film would get all giddy, and the rest wouldn’t think anything of it.

The film DOES work on a performance level, however. Dafoe is incredible (and almost completely unrecognizable), and he appears in the film more than Schreck did in the actual Nosferatu, despite what is obviously a far more extensive makeup design. Couldn’t have been easy for the guy to act at ALL, let alone as brilliantly as he does here. And Malkovich is a delight, obviously relishing the chance to play a snooty, pretentious director (more than likely drawing from some experience). There’s a wonderful line early on where Schreck is basically asking who he could feed on, and Murnau replies “I am loathe to admit it but I need the writer!” And near the end, he begins freaking out giving direction (as it was a silent film, all of the scenes in which we see them filming have Malkovich/Murnau talking the entire time, giving direction both direct and abstract), yelling “You fucking rat bastard, DIE!”. The supporting cast is also wonderful; Cary Elwes is having fun as an eccentric DP, and Eddie Izzard plays probably my favorite character, the actor Gustav von Wangerhein, who is increasingly scared of working scenes with Schreck. Everyone’s a little weird in the movie too, in fact Udo Kier is probably the most normal character, which is odd in and of itself.

And it's actually funnier than I was expecting. In addition to Malkovich's theatrics, Schreck himself seems to be enjoying being an actor (I laughed my ass off when he graciously leans in to help the DP check the focal length), and there are other little bits of oddball comedy sprinkled throughout. I think the point of the movie was to show how obsessed filmmakers can be, but I've seen that sort of thing often, and it's sort of a thin concept that doesn't lend itself to multiple versions. It's the out of nowhere bits, like Udo talking about the time he saw some ectoplasm, that made it interesting for me.

One puzzling thing in the film are occasional silent movie-esque title cards that deliver exposition, but these things are always revealed in the film itself. Like early on, one of them addresses that Murnau wanted to do Dracula but couldn’t get the rights, so he simply changed the names. But this is repeated 5 minutes later in the dialogue, so I’m not sure they had both. Plus, the more realism that they add to the setup, the more the movie comes off as an attack on poor Max Schreck, instead of an outright alternate universe.

The DVD has a short but good interview with Dafoe, as well as a longer one with director E. Elias Merhige, who also provides a commentary. As I learned on the Suspect Zero DVD, the guy is kind of a pretentious bore, but here it’s sort of fitting to the material (a film about a pretentious director, as opposed to one about a psychic serial killer). I left his commentary on in the background and only really paid attention to some of it, but from what I sampled it seemed like he was a bit more tolerable here than on that film, as he actually discussed the actors and certain aspects of production, instead of just abstractly narrating the film and talking about themes (which he does as well). It’s a good listen if you’re in film school and think your short films about people staring at walls and clouds are genius, however. There are also a few Lions Gate (this is back when the company was two words) trailers, which they don’t force you to watch! One’s a really terrible one for Frailty, and the other is for Gods and Monsters, which is also a fictional docudrama about a horror film director, in that case James Whale. There should be a whole franchise about these folks! I’d love to see one about Tod Browning, at any rate.

One odd bit of trivia I want to note about this film - the two stars and producer Nicolas Cage were all up for the role of Green Goblin, which obviously went to Dafoe. I can’t help but wonder if Dafoe turned it down, would Cary Elwes or Udo Kier be next in line for consideration? It’s like the casting director was determined to hire someone involved with this movie.

So it’s a good movie, but it could have been a bit richer I think. The performances and basic concept make it worth watching, but I don’t think they went as far with the “what if?” scenario as they could have.

What say you?

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