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    Shadow of the Vampire

    This blood's for you

    "Shadow of the Vampire" features blood-sucking Willem Dafoe in the slightly loopy story of the making of the 1920s Dracula classic "Nosferatu."


    "Shadow of the Vampire" features a typically earnest performance by John Malkovich as the great German Expressionist filmmaker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, spitting lines like "We are scientifically engaged in the creation of memory!" and "Why don't you eat the script girl!" with gay abandon. And it features a wonderfully creepy, nuanced performance by Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, the mysterious vampire-like star of Murnau's gothic masterpiece, "Nosferatu".

    Directed by: E. Elias Merhige.
    Written by: Steven Katz.
    Cast: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard.
    Cinematography: Lou Bogue.

    Related links: Official site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
    But there's not much else to E. Elias Merhige's slow-moving tale about the making of Murnau's classic 1922 film.

    The focus, of course, is on Dafoe, who looks terrific — and acts terrifically — under all that makeup. As Count Orlok (Bram Stoker's estate refused the director the rights to film Stoker's "Dracula" so Murnau simply changed the name) he outdoes Jim Carrey in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Needless to say, Dafoe's performance is more introspective, although he does roll his eyes a lot in keeping with the over-the-top acting style of the times.

    Credit, too, must be given to Dafoe's startling makeup design. Ann Buchanan makes Dafoe a very convincing-looking Schreck, from the little tufts of white hair behind his pixie-like ears to his long, skeletal fingers, which look like a cross between Freddy Krueger's razor-sharp appendages and those of the face hugger from Alien — wizened and white-knuckled with fingernails as long as a toll collector's on the Jersey turnpike.

    Like "Gods and Monsters," a 1998 film that chronicled the making of James Whale's Frankenstein, "Shadow of the Vampire" is a thoughtful, contemplative film that attempts to inject new blood into the machinations of a cinematic auteur. Unlike Bill Condon's film, however, we do get some insight into the mind of a man who conjured up truly horrific visions — Murnau was a fanatic and an obsessive, one who defied his producer (here played by the great Udo Kier), worked excessively, hounded his actors, kept secrets, and left everything to chance, all tempered by daily doses of laudanum. Unfortunately, the shaggy-dog core of the film is that Schreck wasn't exactly acting when he sucked the blood of his leading lady (we're tipped off in an opening title board that refers to "Nosferatu" as one of the most realistic vampire films ever made). This puts a bit of a shaky spin on an otherwise "serious" treatment.

    Under Merhige's workmanlike direction, "Shadow of the Vampire" is murky and meditative while revisiting the kind of murky vampire lore we've seen a thousand times before. Malkovich, surprisingly, doesn't even attempt a German accent! (Cary Elwes, as a replacement cinematographer, does, and it's to his discredit.) The opening credits sequence is puzzling and interminable — it's not obvious what we're supposed to be looking at — and sets a bad tone for what is to come.

    Co-produced by Nicolas Cage of all people, "Shadow of the Vampire" is still worth catching for, if nothing else, Dafoe's fine contributions. It's an Oscar-caliber performance that, sadly, will no doubt be dismissed along with the film itself (as "just another vampire picture").

    JANUARY 30, 2001

    Reader comments on Shadow of the Vampire:

  • [no subject]   from Nat, Aug 26, 2002
  • not much to this movie?   from nmw, Jul 3, 2011

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