Shadow of the Vampire

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos




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Shadow of the Vampire  (2000, dir: E. Elias Merhige; scp: Steven Katz; cast: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Cary Elwes, Aden Gillett, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack)




Shadow of the Vampire belongs to a curious subgenre of horror cinema: dramatized speculations on the inspirations of true-life horror artists. The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe told a wildly fictionalized account of splattery tragedies that would inform Poe's work. Gothic similarly dramatized a night of debauchery suffered by Mary Shelley that would inspire her Frankenstein. Gods and Monsters fictionalized the final weeks of James Whale's retirement, still haunted by the personal demons informing Bride of Frankenstein: World War One's trench warfare and Britain's class system.

Of the above films, Gods and Monsters hews nearest historic facts, whereas Shadow of the Vampire veers to the opposite extreme, tossing aside history in a brilliantly imaginative, revisionist retelling of the making of F.W. Murnau's classic vampire film, Nosferatu (1922).

In Nosferatu, German character actor Max Schreck played the vampire, Count Orlock. So compelling was Schreck as Orlock, and so completely did he subsume himself in the roll, that his career was destroyed by subsequent typecasting. (A common risk for actors, one that ended the career of Karen Lynn Gorney after Saturday Night Fever). Shadow of the Vampire posits that the reason for Schreck's compelling performance was that ... it was no performance. Schreck was a vampire, and his "makeup" was his real face.



It's an intriguing idea, sublimely executed. Shadow of the Vampire opens with Murnau (played by John Malkovich), shooting his final scene in Germany, without Orlock. No one on his set knows yet who will play Orlock. Murnau informs them that he's found an obscure Method actor who's craft requires him to always be "in character." Thus, this mystery actor (named Max Schreck, played by Willem Defoe), will always be in makeup, and will only shoot at night.

The film company travels to the location in Czechoslovakia, where all are impressed with Schreck's "realism," even as they think he carries it too far. Such as when he goes overboard in attacking his co-star, or drinking a bat's blood. Murnau must control Schreck during the duration of the shoot, cajoling and bribing and threatening, at least until he has "his shot" and everything is "in the can."

John Malkovich's portrayal of Murnau is 90% perfect, but is hobbled to the extent that he plays a stereotype: the tyrannical, jackbooted, thick-accented German film director. Neither Malkovich, nor Merhige, nor Katz, do enough to raise the film's Murnau above this stereotype. One thing they might have done is lose the accents; since everyone in the film (except Orlock/Schreck) is German, there was no need for contrast. All could have spoken standard American English. But Shadow of the Vampire does little to contravene Teuton stereotypes, and the result is that Malkovich's Murnau is nearly perfect, rather than perfect.

Malkovich's Murnau also overlaps with a related stereotype: the director as manipulative deceiver. This broader (and not necessarily German) stereotype is similar to the first, but without the accent or pre-World War Two milieu. It evokes Peter O'Toole's manipulative director in The Stunt Man, who lies and connives and blackmails to get his shots. John Vernon in the Canadian slasher film Curtains also fits this category.

Willem Defoe offers the film's standout performance as the vampire Orlock/Schreck. Dafoe's vampire is feral yet sympathetic, brutish yet poignant. He pines over a photo of the film's leading lady (Greta, played by Catherine McCormack), implying a romantic heart; yet later pounces on her, slurping her blood as the animal he is.

Vampires are usually depicted as either alluring romantics or repulsive beasts. To his great credit, Defoe successfully blends the two personas. His Orlock simultaneously inspires both our revulsion and sympathy. Defoe's Orlock compares favorably to Karloff's Frankenstein monster: both creatures are physically abhorrent, yet beneath their ugliness, we detect pain, self-loathing, and a desire for a nobler existence. Orlock relates his descent from past worthiness, expressing his self-revulsion at what he has become.

Seeing Defoe in makeup and character, it's hard to believe he was Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ -- the most "human" and multi-dimensional Jesus I've yet seen on film, the only cinematic Jesus one could relate to. Defoe also portrayed a genteel and guilt-ridden T.S. Eliot in Tom & Viv, and a memorably chilling biker/sadist in Streets of Fire (another of my personal favorite films). Defoe's range is remarkable.

Great villains make for great horror films. Villains that are morally ambiguous, who confound us by simultaneously evoking our sympathy (or at least, our empathy) and our disfavor. Dafoe's Orlock is that, yet arguably Murnau is the real monster. He has bribed Orlock with Greta, who Orlock may have once they finish their scenes.

It's unclear whether Murnau initially intends to sacrifice Greta for art's sake, but it's intimated the possibility was on Murnau's mind from the start. Greta's life is certainly no priority. Murnau would readily sacrifice his cast and crew, and betray Orlock, to get his precious shots. Murnau continues filming his crew's deaths rather than intervene, much in the manner of war correspondents.

Indeed, Murnau's callousness might in part be explained by his living in a Europe still traumatized by World War One, aside for the fact that the war and its after-effects are curiously absent in Shadow of the Vampire. No hint of the war's human, financial, and political costs that burdened Germany in 1922. This is no irrelevant omission. Most film critics believe German expressionist cinema was influenced by the war. [See David J. Skal's The Monster Show.]

The standout scene is also Defoe's, and will likely be remembered as one of those classic scenes in cinema that everyone recalls. (And proof of the poignant beauty of horror.) Orlock had earlier told Murnau that what he desires most is to see the sun again. After everyone has left the set, Orlock wanders to the film projector, gazes into the lens, and cranks the film. He sees a shot of a ship sailing with the sun behind it. Orlock is mesmerized, gazing into the lens, recalling all that he has lost, and how far he has fallen.




Willem Defoe deserves much credit, but credit is also due to director E. Elias Merhige, and screenwriter Steven Katz. Reportedly, this was one of those scripts that had been shuttled about for years before someone actually filmed it.

The film's title seems arbitrary. Orlock pines for the sun, and his lack of reflection in a mirror provides for a minor plot point, but there's nothing especially important about his shadow. Perhaps "shadow" is intended as a metaphor? The shadow of film's influence on the future? (Murnau speaks of film memory.) But if there's a metaphor to "shadow," it's unclear, and apparently not crucial. This film could just as easily have been called something else.

Udo Kier is likable as Murnau's producer, a contrast to Kier's sleazy Satanist in End of Days. Catherine McCormack's Greta is debauched, shrewish, and thinly sketched, so we don't much care if Orlock desanguinates her.

A historical note: the Bram Stoker estate successfully sued Nosferatu's producers for infringing Dracula's copyright. All prints were ordered destroyed, but Nosferatu survived, so there's no excuse for a horror film fan not to have seen the original. Shadow of the Vampire is worth seeing in any event, but you may appreciate it more if you first see Nosferatu and review its history.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos


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