Shadow of the Vampire

Filled with great conceit and whimsy, director E. Elias Merhige’s “Shadow of the Vampire” is the perfect marriage of fact and fantasy. Genuinely creepy, “Shadow of the Vampire” is scarier than anything else out there.

shadow of the vampireThe perfect companion piece to “Gods & Monsters,” “Shadow of the Vampire” is also about a genius filmmaker who dabbles in horror films. The filmmaker is F. W. Murnau, the celebrated and much imitated German director whose “Nosferatu” is considered by many to be the ultimate vampire film.

Delivered at the pinnacle of German expressionist filmmaking in the early 1920’s, “Nosferatu” perfectly captured the decay and decadence that was spreading across Germany. Never one to bow to convention, Murnau shot the film on location, creating an authentic look that could never be duplicated on a studio set.

Murnau’s quest for authenticity is the basis of Steven Katz’ clever screenplay. Katz suggests Murnau, eager to capture true horror on the screen, employed a real vampire to play the title role. Since very little is known about Murnau’s leading man, Max Schreck, this little bit of whimsy actually works.

The original film’s distant past makes it easy to buy into the premise, which is exquisitely executed by director E. Elias Merhige. The director of the highly respected “Begotten” takes us on a journey filled with memorable characters and images. The trip is well worth the time spent. You emerge from “Shadow of the Vampire” with a sense of awe and admiration.

Merhige fills every frame with something exciting. The scenery is both beautiful and haunting, while there isn’t a bad performance in the group. It’s rare when everyone on board shares the same vision. They are so in tune with the director and material that they make it come alive.

Anyone familiar with “Nosferatu,” so named because Murnau couldn’t secure the rights to “Dracula” from the Bram Stoker estate, will relish in the make-believe world that Merhige and his crew have created. It’s a dark, sordid little playground where nothing is quite what it seems.

John Malkovich is evocative as Murnau, an obsessive man who turns to film in order to release his demons. Malkovich helps us understand Murnau’s torment, even making him empathetic when in truth he is no less a monster than his celluloid creation. When his deal with the devil starts to take its toll, Murnau is more upset how it will affect the completion of his film. Malkovich brings Murnau vividly to life, showing us a man whose obsessions are more in control than his common sense. His desires are frightening.

Willem Dafoe, buried under layers of grotesque make-up, is honestly scary as Schreck. Schreck’s “Nosferatu” is one of cinema’s most chilling monsters, and Dafoe delivers a chilling performance. Dafoe is so convincing as the enigmatic actor that he never breaks the illusion. From his spooky first appearance to his cunning final exit, you can’t take your eyes off Dafoe.

Watching Malkovich and Dafoe square off is sheer delight. Both men bring such strength and authority to their roles that it makes it impossible to root for one or the other. Murnau and Schreck are very much alike in their wants. They both share a desire for power, and while Murnau doesn’t drink blood, he feasts off his crews fears and weaknesses.

The performances are so authentic that the fine line between fact and fantasy begins to blur. Catherine McCormack, Mel Gibson’s lovely lass in “Braveheart,” shines as Schreck’s voluptuous co-star Greta Schroeder, whose life Murnau graciously offers to Schreck in exchange for the performance of a lifetime.

Udo Kier, once Paul Morrissey’s “Dracula,” is fine as Albin Grau, the film’s producer who begins to suspect that all is not right, while the flamboyant Eddie Izzard impressed me as the leading man whose looks of distrust and fear are real. Cary Elwes arrives late in the film as the second cameraman, who is just as determined as Murnau to capture true horror in his camera.

Filmed on location in Germany with the amazing Lou Bogue behind the camera, “Shadow of the Vampire” looks authentic enough, so much so that it is impossible to tell where the original film leaves off and the new footage begins. Numerous cinematic tricks help complete the illusion, allowing the filmmakers to draw us into their world.

I was impressed with Chris Bradley’s art direction, which attempts and succeeds in recapturing the spirit of the original film, and Katja Reinert’s make-up, which transforms Dafoe into one of the most recognizable vampires ever caught on film. All of the technical credits are solid.

Despite being one of the most discussed and analyzed horror film ever made, there is actually very little known about “Nosferat.” and Murnau. The director was just as mysterious as he was celebrated. His work speaks for itself, and with “Nosferatu,” he obviously had a lot to get off his mind.

BLOODY GOODThis old blood sucker has some real bite


John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Udo Kier in a film directed by E. Elias Merhige. Rated R. 94 Minutes.


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