|SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)|
E. Elias Merhige
|"Go ahead! Eat the writer! That will leave you explaining how your character gets to Bremen!"|
|Time: 89 mins.|
Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Dafoe) and Best Makeup.
The main reason I wanted to see this film was because of the cast. Malkovich and Dafoe are two of our finest actors and I knew that anything they chose to do together would at the very least be extremely interesting. Being a huge classic film fan as well, I was highly intrigued by the concept of this film what if the lead actor in NOSFERATU, cinema's first big vampire flick, was truly a bloodsucker hired to be a "method actor"? The execution of this concept was pretty fun and very creepy, but I have a feeling that for those who have never seen the original, the expertise of the recreation, which is a big part of the enjoyment, will not be as impactful. For the film to work, you have to buy into the idea that this could have been the way NOSFERATU was actually shot. I know vampires don't exist, but it sure helps if you believe it...if only while you're watching the movie. Dafoe is brilliant as the old, ugly, belligerent bloodsucker who takes his "method acting" a little too far.
As the film opens, one of Germany's greatest directors F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) is in the middle of shooting his greatest masterpiece NOSFERATU. Since they couldn't get the rights to Dracula, the company has written their own vampire saga. They begin shooting on a sound stage, where all the principles are present except for the actor playing the vampire. Murnau squashes the concerns of cast and crew over the absence of this crucial character. Max Schrek (Dafoe) is a method actor who is getting into character on location and will meet up with them there. His ways are somewhat unconventional, but they produce spectacular results. The film's producer, Albin Grau (Kier), is displeased by being kept out of the loop, but as long as they keep on time and budget he agrees to go along with Murnau's plan. Greta (McCormack) and Gustav (Izzard), the lead actors, are also unhappy with the location and their roles, but Murnau is considered the best in the business, a man obsessed with creating a new film language, so they go along as well.
Of course, Murnau has no better luck controlling his undead star than he does controlling his living ones. Schrek's bloodlust becomes unstoppable and starts to wreak havoc with the production, which is already hampered by having to shoot at night and in out of the way places. The loss of personnel and time is more than Murnau can bear. He confronts his "star", berating Max for reneging on his bargain and trying to ruin his career. If Max does not behave, Murnau will not hold up his end of the agreement, which is a fate for worse than death for Max. Unbeknownst to star or crew, Murnau has promised Schrek Greta's pretty little neck in return for his authentic "performance." It's not until too late that Albin and the rest of the crew realize what is really happening. They believed Max was just an actor who took his role way too seriously, they had no idea they were on the brink of losing their lives. Trapped with the knowledge of their certain deaths, they try to get Murnau to reconsider, to end the horror before it goes any further, but Murnau is unable to stop the madness. This film will be finished come hell or high water. Obviously, this is not really what happened those weeks in 1922, but it's a wonderful what if. There were some strange events and disappearances during production of this film, but for the most part this is merely poetic license.
Unfortunately, though the film works on many levels and is very enjoyable, it lacks heart and a truly gripping story to push it over the edge into greatness. The most interesting and fleshed out character is the vampire and he doesn't even enter the story until about a half hour in. The rest of the cast, though good at what they do, is kind of hard to tell apart. Malkovich gives a decent performance, but it's nothing he couldn't do in his sleep. McCormack is pretty, but this is merely a victim role and she isn't given much to do. Elwes is over-the-top and somewhat annoying. Izzard and Kier provide great comic relief, but not enough to make much of a difference. Because the movie is more about the filming than the people, you don't really care when they start to get eaten. The film lacks a character to relate to, which left me feeling detached from the whole scenario. Yes, I wanted to the film to be completed, but not at the expense of people's lives. Murnau may have been a genius, but they don't give you anything to base that on except their say so. Dafoe's Max is creepy, deranged and at times quite humorous. The scene where he gets drunk with the producer and writer is funny, sad and evil. They have no idea who they're talking to and you're on the edge of your seat waiting to see if they survive the encounter.
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE is an intriguing film that is better than the sum of its parts. Dafoe's performance goes a long way, making this a must see picture. The production design and attention to detail in recreating NOSFERATU is amazing. I bet if you put the black and white section of this film side by side with the original, you'd have a hard time telling the difference. There may not be much to the plot, but at least the film maker's had the sense to keep it short so you don't notice as much. You don't have to be a fan of early cinema to enjoy this movie. It has enough drama and horror for just about everyone. Of course, if you're looking for a SCREAM-like scare, this isn't the movie for you. The danger in this film is of the classic type silent but deadly.