In this age of digital filmmaking, Shadow of the Vampire is a love letter to the beautiful mechanism of a motion picture camera. There's something both tactile and mysterious about images created on a thin sliver of film guided through a series of loops and pins. The final product is run through another instrument with wheels and sprockets, the projector. As the movie flickers across a silver screen, it's not too much of a stretch imagining the director whispering, "I gave you life."
That's the implied joke throughout Shadow of the Vampire, the strange and fanciful projection of what might have occurred during production of that classic 1922 German horror film, Nosferatu - A Symphony of Terror.
This silent film was plagued with financial troubles, crewmember disappearances and deaths, and the constant threat of being sued by Bram Stoker's widow for ripping off Dracula after failing to secure the rights. Given the scant amount of reliable historical information, screenwriter Steven Katz takes some enormous liberties, playfully delving into the surreal and supernatural.
At a brisk 93 minutes, Shadow of the Vampire is light on its feet. Have patience through the incredibly long and pretentious opening credits, complete with music that can best be described as "eerie and foreboding."
Obsessed with realism, director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) drags his small production unit to the outskirts of rural Germany to shoot Nosferatu in an authentic location. His real coup is casting the elusive Max Schreck, a method actor who will appear on set only at night, and only in full costume and makeup.
Having had no real experience before Murnau started shooting Nosferatu, Shadow of a Vampire plays with the notion that Schreck's creature-actor suddenly popped into existence: Art creates life, or a monster. In a role this Wooster Group-trained actor has been preparing for all his life, Willem Dafoe plays the vampire with a mixture of childlike tics and grand gestures. Academy voters take note, his Schreck is both diva and curious child. Almost every scene he's in would make a fine Oscar clip.
The cast and crew raise a collective eyebrow at Schreck's bizarre technique but are undeniably impressed when he makes his first memorable appearance from the shadows. In the nights that follow, members of the crew begin to fall into a deep sickness. While Murnau frets over his financial troubles, Schreck begins to take bites out of his fellow actors. Murnau, caring only for the completion of his picture, offers petty threats to Schreck such as, "You shall have no close-ups! None!" In response, Schreck only waves his talons and sneers through his two fanged front teeth. Feh.
Shadow's director, E. Elias Merhige, uses Murnau's visual approach as inspiration. The train montage, set against a blood red sunset, is a particularly brilliant juxtaposition of canted low angles and mystical landscapes. There is frequent use of stock footage (from the Murnau film), but more often Merhige recreates the black-and-white silent film instead. As Murnau's actors carry on with their sweeping gestures, the director rambles on with elaborate and colorful directions. ("You have had a very nice sleep, Gustav! How about a nice stretch? That's good -- now read your letter. Laugh at the silly superstitions of the locals!")
Not surprisingly, the monster Schreck is more sympathetic than its creator Murnau. The director is so callous he mutters, "We have achieved pathos," after filming a functionary scene involving the heroine petting her cat. John Malkovich, who recently discovered the joy of acting again after several years of bored stock mannerisms, is appropriately glib and nasty throughout.
How about a round of applause for casting director Carl Proctor, who has filled out the supporting cast with terrific character actors? Strong impressions are made by Udo Kier as the harried producer, Cary Elwes as the square jawed cameraman, and scene stealing Eddie Izzard as Nosferatu's foppish romantic lead. The art direction by Chris Bradley also deserves special mention for capturing the German expressionist "look" of Murnau's films without going over-the-top into caricature.
The final scene may divide audiences, but the movie really doesn't have much of a point without it, a sudden and unexpected delve into the fantastic, followed by an abrupt cut to black which nails the coffin shut. Playful and anachronistic, it's an appropriate fate for the characters of Murnau and Schreck. Without blowing the surprise, it's safe to say that Shadow of the Vampire references the old mantra: "It's only a movie."
Hush, I'm hunting...