Shadow of the Vampire
|Willem Dafoe||Max Schreck|
|Directed by||E. Elias Merhige|
In his twilight years, sitting around the old actors' home, Willem Dafoe is not going to have to complain "I never got to really go over the top." As Max Schreck, the ghoulish actor who created the unforgettable vampire in F.W. Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu (1922), Dafoe pulls out all the stops, and he does it with a cackling, irresistible glee that goes straight for the jugular.
Shadow of the Vampire is writer Steven Katz and director E. Elias Merhige's riff on the making of Nosferatu, the first vampire movie and still the creepiest. You get a bit of a history lesson with the price of admission; up to a point the movie draws on the facts of that landmark production. Murnau was denied permission to adapt Bram Stoker's Dracula by the author's widow, a problem he solved by changing the title and rechristening his vampire Count Orlok. Murnau also revolutionized movie-making by taking his camera out of the studio and going on location. The names of the cast and crew are faithfully observed, as is the look of the period, down to the actors' makeup and the dusters and goggles worn by Murnau and his henchmen.
And then there's Schreck, and here the filmmakers let the dogs of their imaginations run free. Murnau's background was with the great Max Reinhardt's Berlin Staatstheater, and so was Schreck's, as far as we know. In Shadow, Murnau (John Malkovich) tells his company that the actor he has hired to play Count Orlok is from Reinhardt's theater, but this guy is from Berlin the way the Coneheads were from France. He's a disciple of Stanislavsky, Murnau says to explain why the actor is not around for the studio scenes; Schreck has traveled ahead to the Czech location to steep himself in the atmosphere, and he will only be seen in makeup and character. (The name Schreck translates as 'fear' or 'horror').
There's some self-consciousness to the exposition in the early scenes, which often happens when the filmmakers have a menu of information to serve. But there are also generous helpings of clever writing and some marvelously atmospheric visual schemes, with the good easily outweighing the awkward. There is also sound philosophy. When the producer complains that the locals who will fill the background roles don't know how to act, Murnau replies "They don't need to act; they need to be.' And "We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory, but our memories will neither blur nor fade" is an observation that carries a twist of pathos now that so many early films have deteriorated beyond repair.
Shadow is more delicious fun than classic horror. It's an allegory of the filmmaking process, but it doesn't let anything so abstract get in the way of its entertainment. Merhige and Katz seize hold of their idea and drive it with clear-eyed relish from start to finish.
© Text 2007 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be