By Rob Blackwelder
Part homage to one of cinema's best-known silent films, part winkingly nebulous black comedy, and part old-school horror flick, "Shadow of the Vampire" is a crafty "what if" fictionalization of the making of "Nosferatu," the world's first vampire movie.
The film stars John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau, the classic picture's legendarily obsessive director who is willing to go to any lengths to capture genuine terror from his cast -- even if it means hiring a real vampire to play the lead, promising the undead "actor" the neck of his leading lady when the picture wraps.
Enter Willem Dafoe in a performance of a lifetime as Max Schreck -- the method actor who never appeared to the cast and crew out of character (or out of make-up, or during daylight) the whole time "Nosferatu" was being made on location at a foreboding castle in Bavaria, circa 1922.
But in the mythology of "Shadow," Schreck isn't a method actor at all -- he's a bona fide bloodsucker with whom Murnau cut a diabolical deal for the sake of creating an absurd level of authenticity.
Of course, with a wild card like that dealt into the production, things soon get out of hand. Murnau finds himself losing a battle of wills with the fiendishly thirsty thespian and it isn't long before crew members start turning up dead -- like the cinematographer Murnau was counting on for his movie's ghoulish look.
"Why not the script girl?" harangues the hair-pulling Murnau.
"The script girl?" Schreck snarls with evil glee, eyes darting about in sinister machination, "I'll eat her later!"
Even under mounds of wrinkly, pointy-eared prosthetics that precisely recreate Schreck's "Nosferatu" look, Dafoe is brilliantly uncanny, grotesque and feral -- while also being quite droll -- in a role that began generating Oscar buzz as long ago as the Cannes Film Festival in May.
He's not the sole allure of this movie, however. The script, by TV writer and script doctor Steven Katz, is brimming with clever dialogue and insightful nods to the dawn of modern cinema. Director E. Elias Merhige ("Begotten") inventively draws his audience into this on-set world with, for example, ingenious transitions from behind the scenes, through the iris of the hand-cranked camera, and right into the scenes from "Nosferatu." Deftly photographed and meticulously designed to mimic the atmosphere of a silent film, "Shadow" captures that spirit in magnificent detail.
As icing on the cake, the performances of the entire ensemble cast are thoroughly entertaining. With a subtle sense of humor, Malkovich nails Murnau's erratic, tantrum-prone temperament and complete dedication to his craft, speaking in almost absurdly poetic verse about the art and poetry of film. Cary Elwes is a shot in the arm as the loose cannon cameraman replacement. Cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard is perfectly cast as "Nosferatu's" dapper, overacting leading man (the fact that men caked on the makeup for silent films just makes him all the more apropos). And the considerably under-appreciated Catherine McCormack ("Dangerous Beauty," "Land Girls") is spectacular as the spoiled stage actress fated to be sacrificed at the alter of Murnau's artistic vision.
Because it's such wicked fun, the handful of acute flaws that are this movie's albatross become particularly grating and obtrusive. Structurally, "Shadow of the Vampire" is jumpy at best, downright sloppy at worst. For example: One central character just up and disappears 3/4ths of the way through the movie. Was a scene left on the cutting room floor? Did Schreck suck his blood off screen? Hellooo?
But in the tradition of the many recent "what if" movies ("JFK," "Dick," "Shakespeare in Love," and the similarly Hollywood horror-themed "Gods & Monsters"), "Shadow" is entertaining (and often truly eerie) enough to forgive its foibles, even if they are sometimes severe.
Run time: 92 mins
In Theaters: Friday 26th January 2001
Box Office USA: $7.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $8.3M
Distributed by: Lions Gate Releasing
Production compaines: Saturn Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Fresh: 110 Rotten: 25
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: E Elias Merhige
Starring: John Malkovich as F. W. Murnau, Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, Udo Kier as Albin Grau, Cary Elwes as Fritz Arno Wagner, Catherine McCormack as Greta Schröder, Eddie Izzard as Gustav von Wangenhein, Aden Gillett as Henrik Galeen, Nicholas Elliott as Paul, Ronan Vibert as Wolfgang Müller, Sophie Langevin as Elke, Myriam Muller as Maria, Milos Hlavac as Innkeeper, Marja-Leena Junker as Innkeeper's Wife, Derek Kueter as Reporter 1, Norman Golightly as Reporter 2
Also starring: John Aden Gillet
Like a mash-up of Alien and Gravity, this ripping sci-fi horror movie is very effective...
Based on a true story, it's the historical aspect of these events that holds the...
This remake of Disney's 1991 classic is remarkably faithful, using present-day digital animation effects to...
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi won his second Oscar with this astute drama which, like 2011's...
After winning a series of major awards for her role in Olivier Assayas' Clouds of...
In films like Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, writer-director Kelly Reichardt has told sharply...
After the success of 2014's Godzilla reboot, the Warner Bros monsters get their own franchise,...
Filmmaker Gurinder Chada (Bend It Like Beckham) draws on her own family history to explore...
With an extra dose of attitude and energy, this Irish comedy-drama hits us like a...
Hugh Jackman returns to his signature role one last time (so he says), reuniting with...
The third time's a charm for Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, who previously teamed...
It's no surprise that this creep-out horror thriller is packed with whizzy visual invention, since...