Shadow of the Vampire Review
By Joe Lozito
Down on The Count
There's something satisfying about seeing an actor playing a role in which he or she almost supernaturally fits. Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey; Marlon Brando as The Godfather; even Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman and, to a different degree, The Grinch. The same feeling comes from seeing Willem Dafoe playing Max Schreck, the actor who made the first on screen vampire famous in F.W. Murnau's 1922 German silent horror classic "Nosferatu". In E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire", Mr. Dafoe is easily as creepy - if not more so - as Mr. Schreck was in the original film. The clever conceit here, however, is that Schreck is an actual vampire.
It seems that obsessed director Murnau has been denied the rights to Bram Stoker's novel and has decided to make his own vampire movie using the real life Count Orlok (Mr. Dafoe), whom he apparently stumbled upon while wandering the hills of eastern Europe. Murnau goes so far as to take the cast and crew on location (unheard of and prohibitively expensive at the time) to a small village where he gradually loses control of his creature and his mind.
The plot, however, is almost secondary. Mr. Dafoe is so good that suspension of disbelief is never a problem, though I would have liked them to address why his Count Orlok will show up on film but not in a mirror. Aside from his performance though, the film is an interesting exercise, but not much else.
The cast is ultimately let down by the script by Steven Katz (HBO's From the Earth to the Moon) who doesn't seem sure what he wants to do with the premise. There are some nice moments, like Orlok's melancholy but insightful critique of the novel "Dracula," but Orlok's origins and his odd obsession with the lead actress (Catherine McCormack) are never explained. Mr. Merhige has a nice way of showing the scenes being filmed through the iris of the hand-cranked 35mm cameras of the time and he gives the film a grainy quality which is either reminiscent of the original "Nosferatu" or simply an indication of bad production values.
But the film seems thrown together. It feels as though someone came up with the premise and then some small scenes were filmed and strung together with shots of the making of the original film. There are no points made about art imitating life. No real statements about the current plague of reality television clogging the airwaves. And, thanks to another scenery-chewing performance by John Malkovich as Murnau, even less said about the obsessive personalities behind the creative process. Then, of course, there are the varying qualities of German accents in the film. Particularly guilty is Cary Elwes, but the less said about that the better. "Shadow" feels like a missed opportunity. Though the opportunity to see Mr. Dafoe kill and eat a bat in mid-flight is not to be missed.