Shadow of the Vampire (2000) - a review
By Joe Harvey
What? Possession. Who? Nice family. With? Anything that looks old/exotic/innocent. Where? Hollywood.
Hollywood horror has become like a madlib that doesn’t change. But every once in a while, a film will sneak up on you from behind, and break the mould. Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalised telling of the making of the 1922 German silent film Nosferatu, in which director Frederich Wilhelm Murnau goes to disturbingly extreme lengths to create his masterpiece. Self-aware, tense, and sinister, E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000) is an original and fun horror film, if not one to give you sleepless nights.
The iconic appearance of the granddaddy of all vampires, Count Dracula, has made him a Halloween stalwart, and though his Greased Lightening hairdo, black cape and splendid white shirt are products of the Bela Lugosi performance, his cinematic adventures began with Nosferatu, which starred Max Shreck as the fearsome face (and fingers) of Dracula rip-off, Count Orlok.
Shadow of the Vampire stars a scarcely recognisable Willem Dafoe as Shreck, John Malkovich as Murnau, and Eddie Izzard as Shreck’s co-star Gustav von Wangenheim. If Malkovich and Izzard shine in their respective roles, Dafoe dazzles, his theatrical gestures and scornful expressions blurring the lines between a renowned dramatist and an ancient evil. Shreck refuses to act during the daytime, and never appears out of character to his co-stars, who deduce he is either mad, or the most dedicated method actor in Germany. They mock and fear him in equal measure, his dedication to the role seemingly threatening to spill into his persona. Or is it vice-versa? It soon transpires that Murnau has hired a genuine vampire to play the role of Max Shreck, and has promised him the neck of the lead actress, Greta Schroeder, in return for a show-stopping performance. As the cast and crew find themselves stuck on an island, they debate what they should fear more: the bloodlust of Shreck, or the egotistical madness of Murnau.
The film combines the humorous and the sinister to wonderful effect, never more so than when Shreck labels Bram Stoker’s novel as being too sad, as Dracula didn’t have any servants, before snatching a bat out of the air and devouring it in front of the producer and writer, dumbstruck by his methodical approach to acting. Merhige makes occasional use of iris lenses and intertitle cards to contextualise the film, giving it an authentic vibe, and further blurring notions of reality and fiction.
Considering the subject, gore is more on a par with a heavily diluted Ribena than a chalice of virgin blood, the horror coming instead from the claustrophobia of being stranded on an island with a vampire and a madman, which let’s face it, is less than ideal. Shadow of the Vampire won’t have you cowering behind pillows/spouses/pets, however it does provide an exciting and satirical look at the lengths some artists will go to achieving their goals. The Twilight regime may have watered down the vampire myth, but look at the bigger picture and you’ll see Dracula is not quite out for the Count.
Can be found on LOVEFiLM and Netflix.