Atmospheric horror film Shadow of the Vampire is proud possessor of the most original cinematic concept of 2000: what if you were making a vampire film, in this case the 1922 silent masterpiece Nosferatu, and your lead actor was actually a vampire. Director E. Elias Merhige has a talented cast, headlined by Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich to help bring that concept to life, but the final product is a little less than completely satisfying.
The film takes place in 1922 during the filming of what many consider to be the greatest horror film ever made: German director F.W. Murnau’s silent Nosferatu, which is nothing more than Bram Stoker’s Dracula with its title and main character’s name changed in order to avoid a lawsuit. Murnau (played by Malkovich) is a director very driven by his vision, which usually becomes a source of unpleasantness for his cast and crew, be it his leading man Gustav von Wangerheim (Eddie Izzard), his producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier) or Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack), his female lead.
But Murnau is hardly the biggest problem facing the cast and crew. That comes in the form of actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe). An obscure German actor “discovered” by Murnau to play the title character, Schreck is an odd fellow who demands that he stays in character (wearing the clothing, the makeup, sleeping in a coffin, etc.) both on and off camera. All this would be taken as nothing more than method acting to the extreme, except for one problem: as the production goes on, cast and crew members start to die, victims of having their blood sucked from their bodies. More and more, this is beginning to look like the work of someone who takes his or her job a little too seriously.
The cast and crew of Shadow of the Vampire do not. True, this is a horror film and there is a wonderfully creepy atmosphere evoked by director E. Elias Merhige and cinematographer Lou Bogue, but Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz manage to find some deliciously dark moments of humour in their story. While the film does have fun with it’s concept, it unfortunately wraps up its story a little too quickly, not allowing the movie to fully realize its potential (this may have been due to a limited budget). What is there is a creepy, sly and funny hybrid of moviemaking satire and old-time horror.
Atmosphere aside, the acting by the two male leads also makes Shadow of the Vampire worth viewing. While Malkovich does a fine job as Murnau (slightly over-the-top yet without travelling into Al Pacino territory), it is Dafoe that really stands out here. With the help of a wonderful makeup job, Dafoe inhabits the role of Schreck with a terrific balance of sly humour and genuine creepiness, making for one of the performances of the year.
Kier (hey, it wouldn’t be a vampire movie without him), Izzard, McCormack and Cary Elwes (as the film’s replacement cinematographer) all turn in applaudable supporting performances. A fun, if rather abrupt, Friday night fright flick.