Shadow of the Vampire
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By Gabriel Jinich
Variations on the story of Dracula have been told on film so many times, perhaps more often than in print or theatre, that it doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest a strange parallel between the art and form of cinema and the myth of the immortal, blood-sucking fiend. This is precisely the point of E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, which takes us back - before Coppola, Herzog and even Tod Browning - into the very source of cinematic vampirism itself: F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic, Nosferatu. The film stars John Malkovich (in his usual megalomaniac-genius mode) as Murnau, and an amazing Willem Dafoe as Nosferatu himself, actor Max Schreck. .
The premise of the film, to give credit where credit is due, is truly ingenious and downright brilliant. In Merhige's fictionalized account of the story, it turns out that Schreck is not an actor at all, but a real vampire (an idea which, if you've seen the original, does not seem that far-fetched). Murnau, insanely obsessed with creating the most realistic vampire possible, strikes a devil's bargain with the fiendish Schreck: in return for his services and cooperation during the making of the film, Murnau will offer him the neck of the movie's leading-lady (Catherine McCormack). As the shoot progresses and Schreck wreaks havoc through Murnau's production, a battle of wits between the two of them ensues, and we are asked to wonder which one is the real monster. Yet despite the story's great potential and a strong first half, Shadow is ultimately something of a mish-mashed mess.
Beginning with the opening credits, Merhige makes one thing straight about his movie: he has consciously made it in the expressionistic style of Murnau himself. Now, does this account for over-the-top performances and ridiculous German accents? Maybe, maybe not. In fact, nothing is very clear about this movie, which is the main reason it has critics divided about it. Is it a comedy, a horror-film, or both? Is its essay on obsession and the metaphor of artist as vampire meant to be taken seriously? As is the case with Nosferatu itself, important questions like these are left for the viewer to answer. .
Going for it, the film has the incredible performance of Dafoe and that of Eddie Izzard as the movie's co-star (their hilarious scenes together are the best thing in the film). The comedy is also always right on-target, playing off the fact that everyone except Murnau thinks the vampire is an obsessive method-actor who studied under Stanislawski. The production design is amazing as well, taking us back to a time where filmmaking was more the work of mad-scientists than that of modern directors (the entire crew wears lab-coats and safety-goggles while shooting, and everyone refers to Murnau as "Herr Doktor"). What ultimately flaws the film, however, is Merhige's inability to find a common tone unifying the comedy, the horror and the drama of a man who destroys everything around him through his own obsessions. The plot gets more absurd, characters disappear without explanation (as does Malkovich's German accent), and the whole thing climaxes in a final showdown that borders the thin line between poignancy and downright silliness. .
Despite its flaws, Shadow of the Vampire is both entertaining and offers an interesting and unique look at obsession and the art of filmmaking. Film-buffs and fans of movies like Ed Wood and Gods and Monsters will surely find it fascinating, yet it never quite reaches the heights it aims for. It is only Merhige's second movie (if you can call his bizarre 1991 debut Begotten a "movie"), so the flaws are understandable. Without a doubt though, he remains a talent to keep watching out for.