Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: E Elias Merhige
Stars: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes, Udo Kier, Eddie Izzard, John Aden Gillet, Ronan Vibert.
Exploring the behind the scenes drama of film making holds a natural attraction for film makers, and E Elias Merhige’s sharp and irreverent Shadow Of the Vampire is probably the best of its type since Ed Wood.
A clever and wry black comedy, Shadow Of The Vampire takes a fictitious look behind the scenes of the making of Nosferatu, one of the most influential and highly regarded of all horror films. This classic silent film, shot in 1922 by legendary German director F W Murnau, is still regarded as one of the best vampire films ever made. Nosferatu was actually a retelling of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, although given a few changes when the author’s estate denied Murnau the rights to the book.
Murnau created the fictional Count Orlock, and was determined to make the scariest vampire movie in history. But he had difficulty in finding the right actor to portray the character with enough menace on screen, until he uncovered the eerily effective lead actor Max Schreck (played here with relish by Willem Dafoe). The unnerving, creepy-looking Schreck is passed off as the ultimate method actor, who never comes out of character. The clever conceit behind this quirky tale suggests that Murnau’s striking lead actor, about whom little is known, was actually a real live vampire, and that the driven director entered into a Faustian pact with him in order to complete his film. Murnau promised the enigmatic Schreck that he could suck the blood from the leading lady (Catherine McCormack) once the production is finished. But Murnau has a struggle on his hands to prevent Murnau from sampling other members of the crew along the way.
Nicolas Cage was so impressed with Merhige’s first film, the little seen Begotten, that he is credited as one of the producers responsible for bringing Shadow Of The Vampire to the screen. His faith in Merhige as an interesting and visually exciting director is rewarded, as Merhige lends the material an edgy and irreverent air. He recreates the jerky hand-cranked camera movements, the stilted acting styles, and the grainy black and white footage of the 1920’s style of film making. Merhige also beautifully recreates some of the scenes from the original Nosferatu for the cameras, and he gives the film a beautifully authentic atmosphere.
Merhige also elicits some wonderful performances from his leads. In particular, John Malkovich is compelling as the obsessed Murnau, and delivers another of his intense, if somewhat mannered, performances. However, it is the almost unrecognizable Dafoe who steals the film’s honours, and delivers one of the most fascinating performances of his career. He sinks his teeth into the colourful role, maintaining a fine line between outright farce and skillful characterisation as the beguiling vampire who cannot control his natural urge to kill and taste blood. It is a masterclass lesson in screen acting, and should see him start favourite for the Oscar.