"If it's not in frame, it doesn't exist!"—F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich)
The vampire of myth and legend is a person whose life was wicked, depraved and who, after "death," lives on to prey upon others by sucking their blood, so sustaining his or her unnatural existence through this liquid of life. Over the years, this core image of the iconic vampire has continually been committed to film in various thematic incarnations, cinematically resurrected as a basis for everything from overt, mindless celluloid actioners to somber, intellectual ruminations on life and mortality, acting as a metaphor for afflictions ranging from drug addiction to urban alienation (see my review of Habit).
Today—nearly 80 years and countless vampire films later—the original Nosferatu (the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel) still holds a singularly haunting and majestic power over its audience. F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent horror classic, with its typically Germanic use of stylized shadows and sly symbolism, invokes an eerie enchantment that is apparent in virtually every frame. The wonderful, unspoken spectacle of mysterious actor Max Schreck's vampiric Count Orlok does not soon fade from memory; mental snapshots of his repellent, sallow, pointy-eared, rat-faced visage emerging from the bleak darkness linger eternally in the collective subconscious.
With genuine, loving reverence for this classic source material, the creative team behind Shadow of the Vampire have fashioned a unique, darkly comic take on the making of Nosferatu, a fictional "what-if" scenario full of wit and cerebral imagination, and perhaps even a scintilla of truth. What if the pseudonymous Max Schreck (surely not a real name, as it roughly translates into Max Terror or Max Horror) was in fact a genuine bloodsucker, a bona fide vampire knowingly employed by Murnau to elevate his terrifying, visionary parable into the ultimate horror film for the ages?
Facts of the Case
Cinematic pioneer F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich—Dangerous Liaisons, In the Line of Fire, Being John Malkovich), whose copious amount of talent and directing skill is matched only by his equally abundant level of compulsive arrogance, has grand designs on finally filming his true masterpiece, Nosferatu. Bent on making a purely authentic vampire film, free of sanitized sets and superficial trickery, Murnau elects to shoot only on actual locations, leaving behind the vibrant city decadence of Berlin for the dank, dark, rural mountainsides of Germany.
Once on site, Murnau introduces his special find to the rest of the cast and crew—the "ultimate method actor" Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe—Platoon, eXistenZ, The Last Temptation of Christ), to portray his vampire, Count Orlock. Schreck's acting methods soon prove to be quite unconventional, to say the least. Schreck shoots his scenes only at night, remains in costume at all times, and, like Herman Munster, his ghoulish mug never seems to require any additional makeup to terrify all around this nocturnal backdrop. Then the cinematographer mysteriously disappears…
It soon becomes apparent to all involved that something is amiss in this production. The eventual question is, to what lengths of madness will the obsessive Murnau go to complete the final reel of his masterwork? At what point does the alluringly lasting legacy of visionary art become more important than the value of human life itself?
Nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Makeup and Best Supporting Actor, Willem Dafoe), Shadow of the Vampire explores the dedication behind the creative process and the extent the artist goes to bring his/her vision to fruition. It's a meditative riff on all artistic endeavors, a metaphor for this go-for-broke creative spirit, using Nosferatu as a starting point of reference. It likewise uses vampirism as a metaphor for cinema in general, where reality is reduced to flat images and shadows on the film stock, removed of all the flesh and blood of living vitality, and deceased movie stars still exist eternally on screen, forever haunting us with their enduring celluloid visage long after they are merely dust and bone.
Willem Dafoe exudes creepy coolness as Max Schreck, the ghoulish actor whose vampiric tendencies may just be the real deal. Even with his progressively repellent look, with its grotesque, elongated shadow that precedes him always like an evil omen, Dafoe still manages to give a restrained, organic take to this multilayered performance, no doubt culling upon his theater background for inspiration. Dafoe, in his horrific makeup, dominates the film and embodies the essence of Schreck—he is tall, thin and bald, with a skull-like face, pointed ears, piercing eyes and fingernails like daggers. The Oscar-nominated Dafoe has a face that, sans makeup, still looks like a skull beneath a skull, if that makes sense. His vulpine and aggressive disposition is responsible for much of the film's finest moments. Yet he really makes you feel for his plight, accursed with eternal vampirism, unable to ever experience a sunrise, unless watching it on film through a movie projector in his stale, lifeless lair. Really, as trite as it sounds, this was a role that Dafoe was born to play.
With his funky goggles and stringy strands of hair hanging adrift on the converging extremities of his forehead, John Malkovich plays cinema pioneer F.W. Murnau to the hilt, accentuating the director's notoriously flamboyant knack for obsessive detail to perfection. He perfectly conveys the detached self-absorption within the silent filmmaker, equally balancing Murnau's egotistical, pampered mannerisms with his creative drive for perfection. Through his subtle physicality and seemingly limitless facial gestures, Malkovich is one of those rare actors who adds a certain intangible quality to every project he's associated with.
The rest of the cast is equally superb. Catherine McCormack is great as the drug-addicted starlet, Greta Schroeder. Eddie Izzard is splendid as awkward actor Gustav von Wangenheim. Cult character actor extraordinaire Udo Kier is always a real treat to watch any time, even in bad films. Here he's perfectly cast as the cavalier producer, Albin Grau. Finally, Cary Elwes hits just the right energetic tone as the swaggering cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner. This is flawless ensemble casting at its inspired finest.
Director E. Elias Merhige previously worked on music videos, directing daring collaborations with other original, gifted artists like Marilyn Manson. Thankfully, he is not just another Michael Bay-wannabe hack. Quite the opposite, Merhige is in many ways just as visionary as the innovative Murnau. Like Murnau, Merhige is a master of storytelling through the use of haunting imagery. Indeed, he utilizes restraint in his production, never letting this minor masterpiece devolve into a sloppy, schlock horror flick. He successfully employs artistic license in reframing his Nosferatu recreations, at times copying the scenes exactly as filmed in the original, and other times adding complex layers of re-interpretation. Furthermore, Merhige conveys inspired, complicated shots to enhance his narrative structure, gracefully and seamlessly moving from the grainy world of black and white to the colored eye of reality. No doubt about it—Merhige is a director to watch out for in future projects.
Like Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire was filmed entirely on location in Luxembourg, not in the usual studio facilities. The gothic cinematography is suitably atmospheric and evocative of the time and setting of its original source material. It retains the German expressionism of the period, drawn from naturalistic rather than artificial, stylistic devices. With a fine sense of aesthetic and dimension apparent in every shot, the superb camerawork by Lou Bogue stays true to its lineage by showing the origins of Murnau's slow-motion and blur photography used in Nosferatu. It's all good stuff and, with an underlying idealistic symbolism always floating just below the surface, this visual power increases incrementally upon repeated viewings.
Shadow of the Vampire comes to DVD in an anamorphic widescreen transfer. Overall, it's a stellar transfer, but there are moments of inconsistency in quality. The image turns soft and a bit hazy at infrequent times. Parts of the film have a very grainy look. As a whole, the picture is on the dark side, full of muted, sepia-coated earthtones of brown, orange, gold, and stone. However, the black levels are distinct and accurate, with a good gradation between the persistent darkness of the night scenes and the deepest blacks elsewhere onscreen. There are no overly distracting video artifacts in this clean transfer, and the print itself is remarkably free of any dirt, scratches, or blemishes.
Shadow of the Vampire is equally adorned with a nice audio presentation, including both a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a DTS 5.1 track. The directional separation is top-notch, yet the dialogue remains solidly anchored and easily discernible at all times. There are some astounding rear channel effects used here, and the rich, haunting score nicely fills the surrounding soundscape. Not unexpectedly, the DTS track is more detailed, dynamic and bombastic, but either track will make your ears happy in the end.
For its DVD release, Universal has decked this Shadow of the Vampire disc with a decent amount of extra material. First, there is a set of interviews with director Merhige, actor Dafoe, and producer Nicolas Cage. While these musings are brief in length, around six minutes each, and contain the usual ego-stroking accolades and platitudes of gratitude for working with the assembled talent, they fully illustrate the genuine affection garnered for this project. Here is an all-too-rare Hollywood production where all principal talent involved were on the same creative wavelength, working in a successfully collaborative, symbiotic relationship to bring a common, artistically uncompromised cinematic vision to the big screen.
Next up is a short featurette sprinkled with soundbite-style interviews and behind-the-scene vignettes of on-set action. Yeah, it's a typical fluff piece of marketing propaganda, but if you admire the film, then you'll still enjoy watching this supplement once. Next, there are two tasteful sets of photo montages backed by the film's haunting score—one gallery showcasing Dafoe's extreme makeup transformation, the other sharing rare production stills. I would have preferred a detailed featurette highlighting the Oscar-nominated makeup work of Ann Buchanan and Amber Sibley; their fantastic contribution to this film deserves more than just cursory lip service or quick photo montage.
In addition, the Shadow of the Vampire theatrical trailer is included along with a surreal teaser for Merhige's debut feature Begotten, a film that appears just strikingly bizarre enough to appeal to those with David Lynch-ian cinematic sensibilities, myself included. Finally, director Merhige contributes a solid audio commentary track to round out this nice DVD package. Merhige is an eloquent, intelligent speaker, and he shares plenty of observations and anecdotes about the real Murnau, Nosferatu, and, of course, this production. His soothing, mannered style of speech and genuine affection for his film kept my attention throughout the duration of the commentary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Obviously, those expecting just an action-packed vampiric bloodbath of a film will be sorely disappointed. The metaphorical grasp of Shadow of the Vampire is likely to be lost on some audience members, who may equally be frustrated by the lack of bloodsucking thrills or eerie chills, or put off by the cerebral black humor of it all. Also, anyone anticipating an outright comedy, possibly misled by the seemingly light tone of the theatrical trailer, will perhaps come away dissatisfied by the intellectual depth and dark edginess to it all. This is a distinctive character study that defies easy labels of genre categorization, so those looking only for surface entertainment need to look elsewhere.
Shadow of the Vampire has individual touches of brilliance and enough quirky originality to warrant attention. Like the original Nosferatu, it casts a spell over the viewer until they finally lose themselves in the haunting, evocative atmosphere of it all. If for no other reason, watch it for the memorable, Oscar-nominated performance of Willem Dafoe. Give this imaginative disc a spin, and then dig that ole VCR out of the closet, dust it off, hook it up and pair Shadow of the Vampire with Tim Burton's fantastic Ed Wood for an inspiring double feature night. Trust me on this one.
Shadow of the Vampire is hereby acquitted of all charges. It was one of the best films of 2000, and Universal has adorned this somewhat overlooked gem with a deservedly fantastic DVD presentation that is not to be missed by fans of quality cinema.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Director Elias Merhige
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