Following my recent unfortunate viewing of Tim Burton’s execrable DARK SHADOWS (2012; Deggsy’s review), I felt poisoned by what I’d seen. I’ve written previously about how I hate the TWILIGHT-style type of mopey pseudo-vampires, and I’m not all that fond of the tragic-romantic bloodsuckers of other works. To me, vampires need to be feral, predatory. They may look superficially like us, but they’ve lost whatever measure of humanity they had while alive. We’re their food, and they should treat us as such. Movies like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and STAKELAND expressed this, and accordingly earned my acclaim.
But these aren’t the only examples. Long before Bela Lugosi offered stage and screen audiences his seminal Count, German director F.W. Murnau gave us one of the first classic horror films: NOSFERATU (1922), aka NOSFERATU: A SYMPHONY OF HORROR. The 94 minute silent film was a superb piece of German Expressionism, an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but with names and other details changed because Murnau’s studio couldn’t obtain the rights to the novel (for instance, the lead character, played by stage actor Max Shreck, became known as Count Orlok). Beyond its own inestimable value in horror film history, the changes also added to vampire lore: in Stoker’s novel, sunlight weakened vampires but didn’t kill them, but NOSFERATU made sunlight fatal to them, in order to produce a suitably cinematic climax to his film. Such was the impact of this that over succeeding decades, audiences and filmmakers would forget that this wasn’t always a part of the legends.
And though Dracula and his cape and tuxedo might be better remembered, the image of the bald, white-faced, pointy-eared bloodsucker as realised by Shreck endured, principally in a 1979 remake by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski, but in many other sources, including SALEM’S LOT, DARK CITY, BLADE II, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, and even an episode of BUCK ROGERS that tried to add a science fictional spin on the vampire legend. Oh, and of course, Mr Burns on THE SIMPSONS. Excellent!
But today I’m writing about SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE, a 2000 movie directed by E. Elias Merhige (SUSPECT ZERO), written by Steven Katz (WIND CHILL) and produced by Nicolas Cage. It’s a metafictional account of the making of the original NOSFERATU, but with one important difference…
It’s 1921, and ruthless German director Frederich Murnau (John Malkovich, MUTANT CHRONICLES, RED) takes the cast and crew of NOSFERATU out on location to Slovakia and Poland to continue shooting the movie, against the better judgment of producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier, IRON SKY, BLOOD FOR DRACULA), constantly worried about his reputation, and Murnau’s leading lady, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack, 28 WEEKS LATER), a morphine addict who’d rather be on stage than in something as vulgar as a movie (“The stage gives me life; this thing takes it away”). The company is most curious about this actor Max Shreck, whom Murnau has secretly hired to play Count Orlok. Murnau states that Shreck has a particular method of acting, how he’ll only film at night, and not associate with the company or be referred to as anything other than Orlok.
We don’t get to see him either, until he enters a scene being filmed, opposite Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard, MYSTERY MEN, VALKYRIE), and the presence of Shreck (Willem DeFoe, SPIDERMAN, ANTICHRIST), with his raspy breath, narrow eyes, straight back and long clawed hands like talons, gives everyone (including us) and immediate senses of dread and fear. This atmosphere is not helped by Albin afterwards declaring confidently that whoever that was, that was not Shreck. But Murnau, determined to capture as much realism as possible for his movie, remains tight-lipped. Cinematographer Wolfgang Muller (Ronan Vibert, TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE) grows literally sickened by Shreck’s presence, and gets worse as the production proceed (gee, I wonder what could be happening to him?), before eventually being replaced by the flamboyant Fritz Wagner (Cary Elwes, SAW, Francis Ford Coppola’s DRACULA).
But everyone else eventually accepts Shreck as an eccentric, if very convincing actor. At one point, Albin and Wolfgang are drinking when Shreck appears, playing along with him and asking him about his origins. Shreck talks about being centuries old, about how he’d long forgotten how he’d become a vampire, or how to turn others into his own kind. He seems pitiful – until a bat flies by and he catches it in his hand and ecstatically drinks the blood from it.
Because this “Shreck” is a vampire, one that the obsessive, tyrannical Murnau has found, and has convinced to join the movie to make it as real as possible (“If it’s not in frame, it doesn’t exist!”). And Murnau has promised him Greta at the end of the movie, believing he’s wily enough to deal with Orlok when the time comes. But Orlok proves to be far more dangerous than Murnau can imagine…
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE is an original, underrated movie, both in terms of story and production. It’s not only a very effective horror film, it’s also an informative slice of cinematic history, showing all the little details about silent film making (the pancake makeup used on faces, how the directors could talk to their actors while filming without having to worry about the sound), and a black comedy about the ruthlessness behind the filmmaking process (many of the tropes we associate with the movies – the drug use, the egos, the backers threatening to close production – were all fully understood a century ago).
The cast is excellent throughout. Malkovich is the seminal obsessive director, putting his cast and crew at risk by bringing in Shreck, and showing concern only when the inevitable attacks threaten his production (“Why my writer, you monster? Why not the script girl?” “Oh, the script girl. I’ll eat her later.”) He’s arrogant and egotistical, but as he loses control over his own production, Murnau loses his grip on reality, and the descent into madness proves realistic.
But it’s Willem Dafoe who really delivers the goods. Assisted by Steven Katz’ script, Dafoe invests depth into the character. He is in turns sympathetic (“There was a time… when I fed from golden chalices. But now…), funny (“Now I feed like an old man pees: sometimes all at once, sometimes drop by drop”), and thoughtful (in one scene he tells about reading Stoker’s book, and finding the saddest part being how Dracula has to do without servants). He even takes to filmmaking, asking for makeup! But he always remains menacing, from the moment he comes into view. Even when he’s not doing anything but standing nearby, he exudes Threat. One sequence struck me most: alone, he plays a filmed of a sunrise onto his own face, as if basking in the light he has not seen for hundreds of years.
The film borrows the techniques of silent films, including the use of intertitles to explain elided action and iris lenses. We the audience veers into the camera lens to watch several scenes of NOSFERATU play out, and the color disappears in favor of black and white, while grain appears on the film. The scenes are quite faithful to the original, too.
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE won several awards, including the Prix Tournage, the Bram Stoker Award for Steven Katz, and the Saturn Award. It received two Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actor for Dafoe, and Best Makeup. They lost to other works. It was robbed. The movie is less a horror film and more a horror film about a horror film. There’s no gore or genuine frights, but it remains a fascinating tale, and horror film fans should give it a watch.
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Plot: 5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 2 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien