I don’t often re-post old material, but I recently had reason to think of this film again, as the director, E. Elias Merhige, will soon be making a guest appearance on Scott Nicolay’s The Outer Dark. Since I am a fan of ALL the creators involved, I am definitely going to catch that podcast–recommend that you do as well. But I also decided to dig up the review I wrote for Entertainment Tomorrow after I saw it at the Vancouver Film Festival years ago.
When it was first published fifteen years ago, this is what I said:
Of all the new horror films I’ve seen in the year 2000, none has impressed me as much as E.E. Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire. I had the privilege of catching this soon-to-be-classic at the Vancouver Film Festival on the dark and stormy night of September 28th, 2000. Very simply put, it blew me away. It’s been a very long time since any horror movie hit the screens of North America with such an impressive cast, such a rich historical backdrop, or such a subversive and fascinating premise.
Shadow of the Vampire revolves around the making of 1922’s Nosferatu, one of the most important horror films of all time; all the major players in the production of Nosferatu are characters in this movie. Since Nosferatu is widely regarded as a turning point in the history of cinema, one of the top ten films of the Silent Era and very possibly the most powerful and influential movie ever made in Germany, it’s really not surprising that so many top-quality personnel stepped forward to be a part of this production. This is a movie that a lot of film fans will want to see just for the quality of the cast, which reads like a roll call of modern cinema’s best, bravest and most avant-garde actors.
The lightest weight player we have here is Cary Elwes, who’s cast as the famous cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner; most of us will recognize Elwes for his role as Wesley in The Princess Bride. But the art director and producer, Albin Grau, is played by veteran German actor Udo Kier, who has worked for some of the world’s most controversial and talented directors: Paul Morrisey, Dario Argento, Wim Wenders, Gus Van Zandt, and Lars Von Trier. The actress Greta Schroder is played by her modern-day counterpart Catherine McCormack, who made a name for herself a few years back when she was cast opposite Mel Gibson in Braveheart. The great character actor who originally played the part of Count Orlok, Max Schreck, is here played by Willem Dafoe—who has starred in so many top quality films that he surely needs no introduction by now! And the director, F. W. Murnau, is played by none other than John Malkovich.
Assembling a list of names like this is probably all the review that this movie needs; casting Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich and Udo Kier all in one movie is more than most of us would dare to ask. But there’s also a unique twist for horror fans, because Shadow of the Vampire is not just about the making of the real life Nosferatu. Instead, the makers of this film offer a unique homage to the source material by giving us a fabulous “what if” premise:
What if director F.W. Murnau, notoriously obsessed with achieving “realism” in his films, had hired a real vampire to play the part of Count Orlok? What if Max Schreck wasn’t really wearing any make-up?
This is a motif which horror fans have seen many times before: the film-within-a-film setting is not only a favorite theme for directors like Wes Craven, but it’s also been explored in mainstream movies which use famous horror directors as characters. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters have recently taken us on the set of 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein and 1958’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, and these were both field trips well worth taking…but the mix in those films was far more heavily weighted to fact than fiction. Even the surreal dream sequences of Gods and Monsters were all in the protagonist’s head, and understood to be the result of the numerous strokes he had suffered.
Shadow of the Vampire is a bird of a different feather, and all the more interesting for it. Embracing its dark premise without hesitation, this is a picture which drives straight out of the blue and into the black, dragging the audience with it. Like the classic film which inspired it, Shadow is a movie about contrast and contradiction, about how we can traipse merrily into the maw of disaster with the best of intentions, and how we can accidentally cross the border from reality into nightmare while traveling on other business. Horror and humor, light and darkness, truth and fiction: the movie screen is a landscape where opposites attract, and the word “paradox” has no meaning.
It is very dark little film, unsettling to say the least. The central conflict is between the characters of Murnau and Schreck, who in this alternate reality have struck a bargain for the making of Nosferatu: while Schreck plays the vampire in the movie, Murnau will provide him nightly with food…live animals in cages, and wine bottles full of blood. Schreck, in turn, will refrain from devouring the various members of the cast and crew while the movie is being shot. The ultimate bargaining chip and carrot-on-a-stick for Shreck is the film’s leading lady, Greta Schroeder…a beautiful woman who is as much an object of obsession for the undead in this film as the character of Ellen was for Count Orlok in the original.
How does the rest of the cast and crew accept Schreck into their midst, despite his hideous appearance? Murnau passes him off as a Stanislavsky-inspired “method” actor, driven to remain in character and full make-up at all times. The irony of many scenes that follow is very intense, as all characters pursue their own ends in a black comedy of errors; the difference between what the audience knows and what the characters know is sometimes too extreme to be anything but funny. More than once we laugh out loud…but the laughter is uneasy, and there’s less of it as time goes on.
Schreck is more than the director bargained for. He’s not just a vampire; he’s an old, blasted, half-senile vampire, living in an ancient crumbling monastery and eating rats in the dark. He may promise not to hurt Murnau’s people, but he’d find it difficult to keep that promise, even if he wanted to…which he doesn’t! He’s the ultimate unmanageable star, lying as necessary to get the part and then turning the screws when the money men are breathing down his director’s neck.
Willem Dafoe is absolutely incredible in this movie; his make-up is only slightly less over-the-top than the makeup that Schreck wore in the original Nosferatu, and the costume is identical. The minute he walked out on screen I forgot completely about Platoon and The English Patient; by the time the film was over I’d even forgiven him for New Rose Hotel. This is a great performance, with Dafoe so into his character that I had to remind myself, repeatedly, that he wasn’t really a degenerate old vampire. He’s as good in the role of Schreck as Martin Landau was as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood…with the possible exception of the one or two lines lost to his heavy German accent.
Ultimately, the audience is left with the question: who is the real monster here? Schreck and Murnau are both selfish, corrupt creatures, driven by their appetites; Schreck kills to satisfy his thirst, and Murnau is willing to kill for art, but morally speaking it’s hard to distinguish the two. In the final analysis, Murnau will do just about anything to get the perfect shot, the perfect reaction from an actor, the ultimate realism on film. In the end he doesn’t care who gets hurt, so long as he creates a movie which will stand the test of time…and he won’t be turned aside from his course, even if it costs him “A lot of sweat, and maybe a little bit of blood”.
In short, this movie is a great homage to F.W. Murnau, a genius of the Silent Era, and all that he achieved in the making of his most famous film. And it is also a brutally honest look at the character traits that all truly great directors have in common! You see, directors are unique among artists, in that all the sacrifices they make for art are not their own. On the contrary… It is the director’s job to demand sacrifices from other people, and the more coldly and ruthlessly he manipulates his cast and crew, the better his art is likely to be.
Alfred Hitchcock tortured his leading ladies unmercifully to extract those performances that we all so admire today; William Friedkin slapped a real priest to give us the powerful scene at the end of The Exorcist. Stanley Kubrick was notorious for exhausting his performers with dozens of takes and no breaks. James Cameron plunged his entire cast and crew underwater in the cooling tower of a nuclear reactor for twelve to sixteen hours a day, while making The Abyss.
It takes a bit of a sociopathic streak to drag your crew to hell and back to make a picture, and use the people who trust you as logs to fuel the bonfire of art. Is it worth it? This particular movie has no final answer to that question, and the ending is morally ambiguous at best. But it’s a rich and worthwhile experience in its own right, and a fine feature-length debut for writer Steven Katz and director E. Elias Merhige, and I sincerely hope that many more horror movies of this caliber are made. Cleverness, complexity and decadent beauty like this are all too rare in any genre, much less horror! Shadow of the Vampire has much to recommend it…including this reviewer.