A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but vampire fangs are a girl's best friend. Or, is it a case of beauty and the beast gone asunder? Perhaps Shadow of the Vampire is a tale of fantasy run amok; the what if's and how could's combined to create a story of very imaginative proportions.
We are entreated entrance into the world of F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) and the infancy of filmmaking in the German Weimar, 1921. He has decided that he is to become the 'starmaker' for the burgeoning German movie industry and the claimant to the personification of truly presenting a film from the guts of the matter, all the way to the glorification of his art as he envisions it should be. He is there to break the rules as Hollywood has set them out and in the process, set moviemaking on its collective ear with his imaginative and Expressionistic influence.
His film, Nosferatu, is to be a telling of the vampire myth as enveloped by the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker. The only fly in the ointment is the author's widow, who refuses to allow usage from her husband's greatest work. Of course, Murnau has this completely under his thumb with an appropriate solution. He will call his vampire Count Orlock, and sweep his creation away from the borders of the original Dracula and into the realm of his own mind and interpretation.
Enter the actor, Max Schrek (Willem Dafoe), whose services as vampire Murnau has enlisted. Twisted and completely in character at all times, is the way that Murnau tells his cast and crew Schrek will appear to them. Oh, add that to the cocktail of his only wanting to be filmed at night --when the sun has gone down. It is claimed that Schrek studied in Russia with Stanislavsky, who taught that to fashion a complete performance of believable truth, an actor must make full use of emotional memories. Schrek indeed has many, many memories to recall.
You see, the fantasy of this story is the supposition that Murnau has made a pact with the devil, or the vampire if you are a stickler for facts. Shrek is in actuality a vampire who has been hired to 'play' a vampire, and his reward for his services is to be the hand or better said, neck of his leading lady, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack). Shrek, in real life, was a slight bit to the left of normal during his private hours. He liked to bite people on the neck and to drink blood. If this didn't qualify him as Dracula or Orlock, then nothing did or ever would!
Throughout the filming of Nosferatu, strange occurrences happen, with cast members falling ill, disappearing, becoming indisposed, and the need to replace the cameraman because of a courtesy of lack of blood, brings forth Fritzy Wagner (Cary Elwes), in all his Errol Flynn, devil be damned glory. Will this strange film see its end and will Shrek claim his pay in the guise of his amour, Greta? Will Murnau become acclaimed as the superior director he thinks himself to be? Can life imitate art? Or will this house of cards come tumbling down and into itself?
The premise of Shadow of the Vampire is to ask us who the greater monster was -- Shrek or Murnau. Was the method actor carrying the torch of actor personified too far, or was the director displaying a method to his madness and what he surmised to be the end all of end all vampire films?
Malkovich as Murnau is fantastic, although at times, slightly campy in his approach to eccentricity. His absorption in his film and the absolute deification of himself as the god of high art, are insights into the character that Murnau was throughout his short life. His villainy, his blockage of what is good, right, evil or inane, stands sentry to the vision that he saw through a tunnel darkly. His motto could have clearly been, 'my way or no way,' or 'when I speak, God listens.'
Dafoe as Shrek is superb. This part was specifically written with him in mind. His performance is quirky and contained, and yet there is a projection of wanting to show us the human facet of the vampire, if only for a brief, fleeting moment in a life that has endured for centuries and centuries. One night, after the crew has left the premises, Shrek is left alone with the projector used on the set. He stares at the film shot thus far on a piece of cloth hung on the wall. A childlike curiosity crawls over him and he looks into the lens itself, as light careens over his face. We see what he is seeing -- footage of the birth of dawn -- something he has not seen for himself, for ages. It's a rare insight into the heart of the monster and touching as it puts the vestige of a human face onto the improbability of an impossible situation. Dafoe brings a sensitivity to the vestige of evil and to a certain degree, we 'feel' his pain and sensitivity, but shun his capability to show us his base foulness. Dafoe, in tandem with Malkovich, makes this film what it is -- an unusual cocktail with a twist of lemon to produce just that twinge of 'uwwww' about it and to make us think of it as more than a run of the mile, umpteenth retelling of yet another vampire story.
There are quibbles that remained with me concerning this film. Why, if the actors are German in origin and are speaking in German accents, do you periodically hear the use of German words or terms? Wouldn't you think that the need for them was quite unnecessary in light of the fact that the rest of the film is in English? Malkovich has trouble with keeping his accent in check, and at times, it's apparent that his American one is creeping like a vine into a scene, before reeling it in and becoming German yet again!
The film, to some degree, comes off as having the feel of one seeing actors act, if that makes sense. It's in the vein of the campiness that Malkovich displays and it grates on the nerves. Too, even though the cast of Nosferatu are witness to some of Shrek's decidedly strange mannerisms, why do they never catch on that he might, just might, be a vampire or at the very least, a little strange in the head? How many people would think that pulling a bat out of the air and eating it was shall we say, normal?
The Shadow of the Vampire can be seen as a film that teeters on the fine line of laid back suspense and a dark comedy of errors. When the final scene of Nosferatu is played out and several of the crew, Greta and Shrek are dead, Murnau, in a fit of disorientation tells the stunned, entering saviors who have brought the ensuing light of dawn with them, 'if it happens outside the frame, it isn't happening.' He has summed up the premise of the nature of film that is his life and life for the rest of us in general.
Cinematography by Lou Brogue is exquisite. The camera angles, the light and dark, the odd angles, the combination of actual film footage from Nosferatu, all combine to make an interesting contract from the usual muddle of horror film footage.
Shadow of the Vampire is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. For those of the younger generation, you are not going to experience blood, guts and gore -- period. There is no bang for the buck of special effects. The only one is Dafoe's wonderfully chilling makeup! For the older generation, perhaps old enough to remember the original Nosferatu, it's going to bring about cries of, 'what on earth have I been watching? Where's the story?' But, they would both be cheated out of an original storyline that is more than just a run of the mill vampire escapade. It's a resounding wake up call beckoning us to think about how art imitates life and vice a versa; how all of us can be monsters, if given even half a chance. Just how far are we willing to go to achieve our art as we see it?
The journey through Shadow of the Vampire is far more important than the destination.