Shadow of the Vampire
directed by E. Elias Merhige
(Lions Gate, 2000)

Shadow of the Vampire has a deliciously daft premise -- it's a meta-movie, a movie about making a movie -- in this case F.W. Murnau's silent 1922 masterpiece, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors. The concept here in director E. Elias Merhige's impressive effort is: what if Murnau's creepy-looking star, Max Schreck (who came from nowhere to portray the vampire Count Orlock) was a real vampire -- one of the undead pretending to be an extreme method actor playing a vampire, all in the name of artistic intensity and verisimilitude. Obsessive perfectionist Murnau found him and convinced him to participate in his film in return (unbeknownst to the cast and crew) for the neck of his female lead, the lovely but unfortunately drug-addicted Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack) when the shooting was completed. The weirdness of Schreck (Willem Dafoe looking fabulously freaky in a perfect recreation of the original make-up design) is explained by Murnau (convincingly played by John Malkovich, German accent and all) to his fussy producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier), cast and crew by stating that the actor is a fanatical follower of Stanislavsky and that his method demands that he remain in character until the film is finished.

Soon, production at the remote Slovakian location is threatened when Schreck, unable to contain his blood-sucking urges and nightly predation, attacks the photographer Wolfgang Muller (Ronan Vibert), who has to be replaced by the dashingly decadent Fritz Wagner (Cary Elwes). Then, when it's time to move the filming from the ruined Slovakian monastery where Murnau found Schreck to a small Baltic island, the vampire spirals out of control building up to a wrenching climax -- is Murnau so dedicated to making his film the ultimate, artistic depiction of horror that he's willing to endanger everyone's lives, especially Greta's?

Shadow of the Vampire is director Merhige's second feature and as such is astonishingly impressive, for this homage to Murnau's German expressionist filmmaking in its heyday is remarkably effective at conveying the heady atmosphere of the times and in recreating the extraordinary iconic images that have inspired so many filmmakers down to the present day. Shadow succeeds in using macabre dark humor to communicate its conceit about suffering in the name of True Art thanks to superb performances -- especially that of Dafoe as the oddly sympathetic vampire.

British comedian Eddie Izzard is delightful with his amusing portrayal of a hammy silent film actor as Schreck's co-star, Gustav von Wangenheim. Malkovich's convincingly obsessed Murnau, McCormack's reluctant leading lady and the rest of the talented cast deliver performances in keeping with this fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the process of silent film production -- clashing egos amidst authentic period detail sets, props and costumes.

Merhige is particularly skillful at marshaling a wide array of visual trickery to imply the vampiric nature of film itself by letting the color bleed out of the backstage madness into the reverential black-and-white recreations of Nosferatu and then juxtaposing them with bits of actual footage from the classic itself. He also effectively conveys Murnau's philosophy that movie-making is a kind of science of preserving artistic imagery for the ages by having the crew wear white laboratory coats (which they really did for Murnau back in 1922). This marvelously warped and clever fictionalized the-making-of Nosferatu, so rich in mood and authentic atmosphere enormously enhanced by Dan Jones' eerie yet lovely score, has too much mordant humor (except in the shocking final scene) to be a "Symphony of Horrors" as suggested by the original subtitle. But Merhige's eccentrically effective ability to honor the era and the notion that celluloid images possess otherworldly powers that somehow transcend time and mortality, makes Shadow of the Vampire an excellent, entertaining symphony of exotic fantasy cinema.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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