Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some Sexuality, Drug Content, Violence and Language
Directed by: E. Elias Merhige
Written by: Steven Katz
Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard & John Aden Gillet
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE sounds like a blast right from the premise. It’s a macabrely clever blending of history and horror for a vampire film that’s truly one of a kind. The movie boasts talented actors and fantastic art direction. SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE was actually nominated for two Academy Awards after its release (Best Supporting Actor and Best Makeup). Despite all of these things, the film remains a hidden gem in the horror genre and a treasure for cinephiles familiar with the German Expressionism movement in the early years of cinema.
The year is 1921. Famed German director F.W. Murnau has been denied the rights to produce an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, but proceeds to do so anyway by changing the names of characters and adding the title NOSFERATU. Instead of Count Dracula, the vampire is Count Orlok. The production crew hear rumors that Murnau has picked a most unusual performer for the role and these are confirmed by the arrival of method actor Max Schreck. Schreck frankly scares the bejesus out of everyone on the set with his realistic take on the undead ghoul. All the while, it appears that Murnau is going off the deep end to perfect his masterpiece. He couldn’t have taken radical steps and hired an actual vampire to star in his film, could he? Though that might explain why certain members of the crew are going missing…
It’s not a huge spoiler to say that this is a horror movie and there are only so many ways this premise can play out. SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE has stellar moments, a show-stopping climax, and manages to add its own spin on actual history. F.W. Murnau was known for being a bit eccentric on his sets and Max Schreck was a method actor who did scare everyone on the set of NOSFERATU by never breaking character. Filmmaking was a far more intricate art form in this time period too. A single flaw in an unbroken shot could screw up a day’s work. Screenwriter Steven Katz uses all of this knowledge to his full advantage. The whole story is further brought to life by an absolutely beautiful soundtrack. Seriously, if you don’t have any desire to watch this movie, just listen to the soundtrack for the sake of listening to wonderfully composed music.
As original as the plot may be, SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE seems to rely too heavily on the one-joke premise in places. There are many scenes (some of which are for pure comic relief) that have cast/crew members talking to Max Schreck in order to see how far he’ll push his method acting as a vampire. These usually end with one actor looking to the other and saying “We need more like him!” An added “wah wah wah” sound bite wouldn’t be too out-of-place in these moments. The film isn’t strictly played for laughs though. A very horror angle is taken on the material and reminds you that this is a dark story about eerie goings-on in the hope of producing a cinematic masterpiece. It seems almost like director E. Elias Merhige was aiming to incorporate German expressionism into this film about a guy making a German expressionist film. It’s kind of meta in that regard and adds yet another layer to why this movie is so damned entertaining.
As far as the cast is concerned, John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe play off each other brilliantly. Malkovich is perfect as the obsessed Murnau and Dafoe is even more so in the role of Schreck. Adding little ticks, twitches, and a variety of extreme facial expressions, Dafoe is almost unrecognizable in this part and seems to be loving every second of it. This is how the scariest vampires are in my opinion (the creepy monsters that aren’t sexy and are only interested in draining your precious red fluid). A few other notable performers have issues or just plain leave way too early in the story. Eddie Izzard adds a lot of fun to the film, but leaves almost as fast as he enters. Meanwhile, Udo Kier is unconvincing as the film’s oddball producer. Then there’s Cary Elwes. In the right roles, he’s fantastic. In the wrong roles, he’s awful. He’s more good than bad here, but carries an undiscernible accent that magically comes and goes. The film works best when its focused on Malkovich or Dafoe and that’s a majority of the story.
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE tells a creative story that brims with potential as soon as you read the synopsis. There are many strengths (great atmosphere, fantastic soundtrack, a couple of perfect performances, etc.), but also some weaknesses (some shaky performances, a few pointless scenes, etc.). The good far outweighs the bad in this unusual horror flick. It’s a vampire movie like no other and it just happens to take place around the filming of one of the most famous vampire movies ever made!