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)
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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