SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)
Starring John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Ewles, Catherine McCormack & Eddie Izzard
Directed by E. Elias Merhige
Written by Steven Katz
Produced by Nicolas Cage & Jeff Levine
Cinematography by Lou Bogue
Music by Dan Jones
Edited by Royinba Onijala

Satisfying your need for bloodthirsty vampires and fabulous manicures all in one sitting!

   Sooooo it is the 31st of October, dear readers, and you know what that means – it’s time for me to kick this off by greeting you with a jubilant and somewhat obligatory “Happy Halloween!!!” Being that it’s the spookiest time of the year, I thought it would be fitting to do a review about one of my favorite movies of all time – a truly unique and expertly crafted horror film released in 2000 by the name of Shadow of the Vampire. Of course, I use the term “horror film” very loosely with this one, because it’s really more of a darker-than-coal black comedy. In fact, I would even go so far as to say this film establishes a very interesting and unique new type of genre:  gothic comedy. Because, while Shadow of the Vampire definitely sets a sublimely creepy/spooky tone and builds an atmosphere which compliments its subject matter perfectly, the movie excels in delivering ironic and well-thought out laughs which sink in deeper than the teeth of the titular vampire in question, daring to really get into the bloodstream of why vampires and cinema mix together so deliciously well. (Yeah, I really just went there. Deal with it.) Shadow of the Vampire is, in many respects, the most perfect vampire movie ever made – or certainly one of them, at least. And not only that, it’s also one of the best movies ever made about the act of filmmaking itself, and the trials, obsessions, and lengths a brilliantly mad artist will go to in order to truly manifest his exuberant vision for the world to behold and appreciate. And how can you not love that?

   Shadow of the Vampire is a movie about the making of another movie called Nosferatu. Unless you’re completely unfamiliar with the annals of film history, you’ll know that Nosferatu is a bonafide cinema classic, a legendary film which is considered to be one of the most powerfully influential and realistic German expressionist films ever made. Its director, F.W. Murnau – who was already considered to be a legend in his own time (that being the late 1910s/early ‘20s) – got around the troublesome minutiae of copyright infringement by simply changing the names of the characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula story and naming his own film Nosferatu. The result was an unprecedented masterpiece, widely regarded as one of the first true horror films of the silent era, firmly cementing Murnau’s place in cinema history. But Shadow operates under one bizarre and extraordinarily juicy premise: what if not everything with the making of Nosferatu was exactly what it seemed? What if Murnau actually had the audacity to track down and hire an actual fucking vampire to portray the nightmarish vampire depicted in that 1922 masterpiece? It’s a weird premise for a movie to be sure, but one which was squeezed of every single last drop of dramatic excellence by its vastly gifted team of filmmakers and actors, and the results, my friends, are impeccable.

With fancy eyewear like that the results had damn well better be impeccable.

   The film opens with one of the most compelling, eerie, and strangely beautiful opening credits sequences I’ve ever seen. We’re treated to a series of slow tracking shots depicting abstract and surreal gothic artwork, set to a steadily rising and evocative piece of scoring which eventually crescendos into a blast of dramatic glory before it swiftly dwindles down again and we’re pulled slowly out of the nightmarish vortex of medieval-looking artwork and set gently back into the real world. It’s one of the most effective and exquisitely appropriate opening credit sequences I have ever witnessed, and it sets the tone of this strange, dark, and daringly beautiful film perfectly. Next, we find ourselves on a movie set in 1920’s Berlin, where we’re introduced to most of the principal cast and some characters are effectively built. The real-life filmmaker F.W. Murnau is portrayed with perfect obsessed brilliance by John Malkovich, who easily demonstrates why he gets nominated for Academy Awards and you do not. The guy is on another level in this flick, and his performance grounds the movie in some kind of absurd yet weirdly relatable context as we watch him portray a man willing to do anything to achieve his ideal vision for the perfect vampire film. It’s high caliber stuff, people.

   We see Murnau directing his female lead Greta Schröder (Catherine McCormack) in a minor scene involving her playing with a cat in a window, and we get a taste of her spoiled movie starlet attitude as she and Murnau trade subtle barbs. She’s quite displeased about having to act in front of a camera, and also at the fact she’ll have to leave Berlin to shoot on location in Heligoland. In fact, most of Murnau’s crew, including producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier), screenwriter Henrik Galeen (John Aden Gillet), and cinematographer Wolfgang Muller (Ronan Vibert) – all real-life people except for that last guy, I’m pretty sure – are confused as to why Murnau is choosing to leave the comfort of the studio to shoot at real locations. Albin tries to get Murnau to tell him some details about the mysterious actor who will be portraying the film’s titular character, but Murnau simply avoids answering him and leaves to do crazy German 1920’s drugs and do weird sex things at an endlessly peculiar club/brothel-type place. The crew is told by the other main actor in the film, Gustav (played with considerably dramatic chops and humorously arrogant gusto by standup comedian Eddie Izzard) that the mysterious actor’s name is Max Schreck, and that he already went to the location months ago to get a feel of the place. On top of that, Schreck will only be appearing onset in full makeup and completely in character as The Vampire, and the shooting of his scenes will only be done at night, in a somewhat overbearing form of method acting. Perplexed yet warily trustworthy of their director, the cast and crew set out for the location where they will finally meet the star of their movie.

He’s a charming, happy-go-lucky type of fellow, for certain.

   And what a star he is. Without a doubt, the vampire created in this film – referred to in the credits as “Max Schreck”, even though that’s definitely not his real name – is one of the finest depictions of a true-to-legend vampire in modern cinema. Once we get a glimpse of this living, breathing realization of an iconic screen villain in the “real world” of the film, it makes your hair stand up on the back of your neck…the dude really looks creepy! Willem Dafoe portrays the vampire portraying an actor portraying a vampire in a German silent film, and he singlehandedly gives one of the best performances of his – or anyone else’s, really – entire career. Dafoe exudes tormented brilliance as Schreck the vampire, putting an extra amount of effort and detail into every facial expression and jilted movement this centuries-old creature makes. To watch his character spar with Malkovich’s is truly the stuff of cinema gold; the two actors play off of each other with absolute perfection. I really can’t say enough good things about Dafoe’s performance – if I could compare it to another, more recent complete immersion into a character’s psyche by an actor, it would have to be Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. In fact, it might even be a little bit better than that already legendary performance. To see Dafoe twist himself into new shapes, emote with his gnarled vampire voice, and contort his face into hideous yet humorous expressions is to see the true embodiment of what it is to be a devoted actor: you forget you’re watching an actor in makeup. Quite frankly, this movie would completely fall apart without the right actor in the pivotal role of the Vampire, and Dafoe is the only actor in the world who could have done it. While Dafoe was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2001, he unfortunately lost to Benicio del Toro in Traffic – not necessarily the worst call in the world, as Benicio is quite exceptional in that film, but it is a complete overlooking of the absolutely harrowing transformation Dafoe undergoes in this movie – no other actor could do what he did in this role, and I think he unquestionably deserved the Oscar that year. But, what can ya do?

   Anyway, back to the movie: after a transitional train sequence over which Malkovich gives one of the most powerful monologues I’ve ever heard regarding the power of motion pictures and their group’s place in it, the cast and crew arrive at their destination and begin noticing strange things right off the bat. It seems Murnau has brought along some bottles of actual blood, and Muller the cinematographer seems to be experiencing some type of strange sickness after their first night at the inn they’re staying and filming at. Despite the odd occurrences, the group begins shooting the following day, until a woman interrupts Murnau’s shot to admonish them for taking the crosses off the walls. “The crosses are NOT for decoration,” she warns gravely. Something is definitely a bit awry with these proceedings, and everyone except Murnau seems to acknowledge it.

You think you’d be entertained at least slightly after a night full of silly vampire antics…but judging from their faces, it’s not as fun as it might sound.

   Finally the night to shoot Schreck’s first scene comes, and Murnau has it all planned out: Gustav (in character) is walking into the shadows when suddenly, Count Orlock emerges from them, giving Gustav the convincing amount of shock and terror to translate perfectly onto the screen. Satisfied with the first take, Murnau calls it a night, much to his producer Albin’s dismay. “I would have gone anywhere at any time for that look on Gustav’s face,” Murnau professionally declares. Despite the brevity of the shoot, Muller again has another episode, falling to the floor and looking quite pale…almost like something is sucking the life force from him. Muller is rushed back to the inn to rest, and when he arrives the sight of him frightens the innkeeper lady from before, causing her to exclaim “Nosferatu!”and run away. Undeterred by the declining health of his photographer, Murnau continues shooting, with Schreck’s contract-reviewing scene with Gustav being the occasion when the entire crew finally gets a glimpse of this unconventional “actor”.  After a mishap and some confusion on the set due to Gustav actually cutting himself with a knife (at Murnau’s sly direction) and a generator blowing, Murnau finds Schreck biting the neck of Muller when the lights come on. Muller is taken away as Murnau chastises his star, telling him to stay behind. Not that Schreck minds; he seems to be in utter delight at his actions…and why shouldn’t he be? He just got to taste some sweet, fresh blood from some hapless victim, just like the good ol’ days.

   Shadow of the Vampire succeeds at blurring the line between fantasy and reality, bridging the gap between cinema and the macabre in a subtle and creative fashion. To see a real, live vampire (in the reality of the movie) trying to act alongside regular actors is not only highly unusual, it’s absolutely hilarious. Dafoe has the strange task of convincingly portraying an actual vampire who is terrible at acting, but is accepted as a talented actor by everyone else simply because he looks and behaves so damn convincing. It’s an awesome joke that only gets better as the movie goes along: there’s an absolutely great scene a little later in the film, after Murnau flies back to Berlin to find another cinematographer due to Muller being hospitalized and most likely killed because of Schreck’s vampire needs. Albin and Henrik are sitting around getting drunk in Murnau’s absence, and are unexpectedly joined by Schreck, who they still believe is just some crazy guy much too invested in his role. They jokingly and belittlingly begin asking him vampire questions, not expecting any real answers, but this real vampire begins providing them. He goes on at length about the novel Dracula’s inherent loneliness, expressing how absurd it is that Dracula would prepare food for his guest when he himself has not eaten food for centuries, how Dracula has to convince the man that “he is like the man.” While Albin and Henrik inquire as to how he became a vampire, Schreck pulls a bat from the air with cat-like agility and grotesquely sucks it dry in front of them, then proceeds to enlighten them on how being a centuries-old, undead, blood-sucking creature can really start to do a number on your memory. Schreck eventually stumbles away creepily, leaving Albin and Henrik to look at each other and come to the same conclusion: “What an actor.” Out of a large quantity of brilliantly written scenes in this film, this one probably takes the cake for its milking of the film’s premise for all its worth in a genius fashion.

Murnau learns quite quickly that you should never grip a vampire’s collar unless you mean some serious fucking business.

(I’m gonna stop summarizing the plot here, mainly because I don’t want to give away what else happens in the movie, but also because I just want to talk about other things now. If you don’t like it, then bite me like Orlock muthafuckaaaaaa!)

   Worth pointing out is composer Dan Jones’ quirky and evocative score, which is just as memorable and influential to the film’s feel as the characters themselves. The score really runs the horror gamut from creepy, unsettling background noise-type music, with barely audible low rumbles complimenting the film’s more intense scenes, to more melodic, jaunty tones achieved with woodwind instruments and lush string arrangements that really bring out the chilling edge to the scenes of the terror lying underneath. It’s a very appropriate score, and one that doesn’t just sound like your average movie music – an unfortunate precipice that many other film scores fall into. Another thing worth mentioning is the film’s commendable feat of recreating some of the iconic scenes from Nosferatu and showing them to us from a different perspective, namely, that of the filmmaker’s. This is probably obvious, but I should point out that anyone who is a fan of the original 1922 Nosferatu would be an absolute tool to miss out on this movie, and should probably get on seeing it ASAP if they haven’t already. Seeing the black-and-white recreations of the classic scenes from the movie is a really cool visual treat, and they’re pulled off quite proficiently.

   Possibly the one greatest thing about Shadow of the Vampire – as amazing as it is in its direction, makeup effects, performances, setting, cinematography, music, pretty much everything – the reason the movie is a triumph is because of its brilliant script. Screenwriter Steven Katz’s first script is unfathomably clever, self-knowing, and most importantly, entertaining. This movie is really an example of all the right people coming together to create something unique and special – a true filmmaking dream. The movie gets right into the nitty-gritty of what makes movies movies – the spectacle, the illusion of it all. Murnau has set up the illusion of an actor playing the part of a vampire with an actual vampire, to capture the illusion and put it up on the screen for people to see in reality – it’s all meta and self-referential, two things that I highly appreciate from my movies. As much credit as Steven Katz gets for scribing this polished gem, all hats go off to E. Elias Merhige for keeping all the components together and making one of the most smartly directed films I’ve ever seen. Every nuance, every line in every scene has an extra added weight, and the tone is kept remarkably grim – you really get a feel for what the characters are going through, and what their intentions are.

   Having just said that, I want to talk about the only real plot hole I’ve found in the movie. (Yeah, I like contradicting myself. What of it?!) It might be something implied within the context of the movie, I’m not really sure…I just want to elaborate on it a bit. Having watched this movie a few times, I am still not quite sure as to why Muller never just said he was being attacked by a vampire, and that the very same “actor” they’ve been filming was the one doing the attacking. It would have hurt the plot if he did, obviously, but that’s the very line of thinking where plot holes are born from. Maybe Muller isn’t the kind of guy to make waves even when something dreadful is happening to him? Maybe he didn’t think anyone would believe him if he did try to say something? Or maybe – and this is my most prevalent theory as to what might be the case – Murnau and him have some kind of weird past, one that allows Murnau to have some sort of mental control over him. Not in a psychic way or anything, but in this weird, sexual, dominating way. It’s heavily implied throughout the movie that Murnau is into weird freaky sex shit, probably of a violent nature, and at the beginning of the film there’s a scene in which the crew ponders where Murnau could be running off to after shooting is done. Henrik suggests “perhaps he has a woman?” and Muller chimes in with “Or a man.” The fact Muller says that, and some other VERY subtle evidence given through Malkovich’s performance when Muller starts getting sick, suggests to me that there’s some sort of weird, unspoken tryst between these two men that prevents Muller from telling everyone what’s really happening. The point I’m making here is, it’s never directly explained why Muller doesn’t say anything about being attacked by a fucking vampire. It is something that bothers me about the movie, and the only real “flaw” I can find with it in terms of plot progression. In the long run it doesn’t really matter, and it’s doesn’t detract from the movie necessarily, but it’s still something that puzzles me, and something I wish was more directly examined in the film. Because other than that, it’s pretty damn near flawless.

Ya gotta admit, despite the everlasting centuries of eternal pain, torment and unquenchable bloodlust, sometimes bein’ a vampire has its perks.

   Shadow of the Vampire excels as a dark yet humorous examination of the power of cinema, the mystique of illusion, and the very unstable line between what is fantasy and what is reality. Although a complete work of fiction, the movie treats its story as if it is completely genuine, taking its subject matter deadly serious. Perhaps more than any other vampire movie I’ve seen, other than Let the Right One In, it examines with an un-romanticized eye the brutal realities of what being a vampire would be like. The cold, insufferable loneliness, the bane of being shunned for centuries, the sense of longing and tragic desire within a heart that lusts for blood…never before have I seen a vampire character so depressingly pathetic yet entirely engaging. Again, it’s a testament to Willem Dafoe’s acting abilities than he was even able to pull this hideous creature off, and actually make him pretty damn likeable along the way. The movie really brings into question as to who is really the bigger monster: the vampire hired by the director, or the director Murnau himself, a man who will do anything in his power to execute his obsessive vision – no matter who or what must be sacrificed. In the end it produces cinematic gold and inspires millions of people all over the world for generations, but is that end really worth the means? It’s a question Shadow of the Vampire brings into question but sneakily refuses to answer, leaving you to ponder the ramifications of such notions long after the credits have rolled. It’s a haunting film that leaves a lasting impression on your psyche: even if you absolutely hate Shadow of the Vampire, it’s undeniable that you will not be able to forget it for a long, long time.

   So final thoughts? I highly, HIGHLY recommend checking out Shadow of the Vampire in some way before you pass into the next realm. It’s a movie that challenges perceptions and calls into question why we even love movies in the first place, and thrillingly exhibits those very reasons with utmost practicality and professionalism. It’s simply a well-made, well thought-out film that lingers with you after you see it. Not only that, but it’s PERFECT for the Halloween season, and will more than likely imbue your evening with that appropriate blend of fun and spookiness that accompanies the holiday. Do yourself a favor and check it out! And remember – this is what REAL vampire movies are supposed to be like.

   Aaaaaand, just for good measure, here’s what they’re NOT supposed to be like:

It’s like someone barfed out some Count Chocula mixed with Lucky Charms onto a piece of paper and decided to sell it to excitable 12-year-old girls….

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