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Retro Review: Shadow of the Vampire

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Shadow of the Vampire

3.5

Shadow of the Vampire PosterThis is an independent film. It’s not for everyone, nor will it be a major hit. But I do feel that Shadow of the Vampire will become a cult classic in very little time. It has already won acclaim world wide and will probably receive more when Dafoe is nominated as Best Supporting Actor. I love it when a script is so original that it's able to transport you to another time and place.

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The text below the break is part of a theatrical review originally published on January 27th, 2001.

Here are some updated thoughts:  I’m not sure Shadow of the Vampire went on to become a “cult classic,” but I was right about Willem Defoe‘s nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  Unfortunately he lost out to Benicio del Toro in Traffic (which I have never seen).  The movie did go on to win 9 other awards of various stature though.  And for a little bit of final trivia, Shadow of the Vampire was produced by Nicolas Cage.  Seems right in his Wheelhouse of the Bizarre.

Shadow of the Vampire is more than just a homage to F. W. Murnau’s 1928 vampire classic Nosferatu. The story goes that in 1922 Murnau was refused the rights to adapt Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the silver screen by the wife of the deceased author. But that didn’t stop Murnau (played by John Malkovich in this film) from making his vampire opus. He stole the best parts of Stoker’s novel, changed the setting of his film, and renamed the title to Nosferatu.

That much is known. But one thing still puzzles critics. Who was that actor that personified the vampire? The man, who went by the name of Max Schreck (here played by Willem Dafoe), was a man who had never acted in a film before and who never acted in a film after. Nothing is known about this mysterious actor. Screenwriter Steven Katz took this premise and fiddled around with it in order to try and make us believe that Schreck really was a vampire and that he was the reason why Murnau’s vampire movie was plagued throughout its production. Now, how’s that for originality?

Shadow of the Vampire mixes the real facts known about the production with a fictional account of Schreck’s hidden secret. The moment the production crew moves to Germany in order to complete the second part of the film, things go awry. They settle down in a small hotel which is covered with crosses. Their cinematographer goes insane. Some of the crew members disappear. And, to top it off, Murnau has to deal with the threat of a shutdown by his investors.

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But Murnau will not let his film go unfinished. He will do anything to get his picture to the big screen, even if it means jeopardizing his crew and his own sanity. The film does not become too weighty with true facts, since very little is known about the actual production of the film Nosferatu. For example, historians do know that the crew’s cinematographer went insane and that the main actress died shortly after filming of the last scene. But the reasons why are still unknown to this day. The film takes dark liberties with these facts and involves them with the meeting of a real vampire. What if all those suspicious deaths had been caused by a vampire?

Shadow of the Vampire PosterF. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is struggling to create his silent classic “Nosferatu” on location in Eastern Europe. The director is obsessed with making this the most authentic vampire movie ever. To that end, Murnau has employed a real vampire, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), explaining to the crew that he is the ultimate of that new breed, the “method actor” — trained by Stanislavsky himself. Schreck will appear only in character and only at night.

Shadow of the Vampire

Director:  E. Elias Merhige
Starring:  John Malkovich, Willem Defoe
Genre:  Horror / Comedy
Media:  Film, 92 minutes
Rating: R
Budget: $8 million
Box Office: $11 million, worldwide
Year: December 18, 2000
3.5 out of 5 stars

I’m not sure I would classify Shadow of the Vampire as a comedy . . . perhaps an extremely dark comedy. Although the film does have many very funny moments, this is not a laugh-out-loud riot. The film has dramatic moments as well as a few suspenseful moments. This film could have turned south from the beginning. Try too hard to do a dramatic film about the creation of the true vampire film masterpiece and it would end up looking like just another fanatic homage. Make it too funny, and the film loses its sense of credibility. But Katz, as well as director E. Elias Merhige, were able to create a film that is impeccably well-balanced. Most of the film’s comedy is subtle and the drama is never over the top.

Mix this with wonderful performances from Malkovich, and especially Dafoe, and you end up with very original flick. I also have to say that Merhige’s vision as a filmmaker is interesting. I loved how a color shot will slowly turn to black and white. I loved the way he showed how those old silent films were shot (everything had to be done on interior sets because the cameras were not made to shoot exteriors). This film looks great, and it should be experienced on a theater screen.

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I do wish that Merhige’s vision of F. W. Murnau could have been less sadistic. Murnau was known to be a very difficult director. Coming out of the German Expressionism era, he created many silent films that revolved around mood and tone. There are countless tales of how Murnau was erratic and self-indulged. Shadow of the Vampire took this to extremes and made Murnau look like an erratic man who loved nothing and no one but himself and his films. If you see the film, you will understand why I had some troubles with its ending. Murnau ends up looking like a psychotic director more than just a very indulgent one.

That aside, Shadow of the Vampire is still an amazing film to watch. The script is witty, the direction impeccable and the performances solid. I’ve rarely seen such a wonderful blend of comedy and drama. The film was able to take me back to 1922; the old days when a camera had to be spun by a handle instead of a motor. I admired this film, even if Merhige’s version of Murnau was . . . a little too sadistic for my taste.

Bottomline:

This is an independent film. It’s not for everyone, nor will it be a major hit. But I do feel that Shadow of the Vampire will become a cult classic in very little time. It has already won acclaim world wide and will probably receive more when Dafoe is nominated as Best Supporting Actor (he will probably be this year’s long shot). I love it when a script is so original that it’s able to transport you to another time and place. And Shadow of the Vampire did just that for me.

Note:   I’m revisiting and re-posting many older articles (almost 200) I’ve written (or contributed to) over the years, either for my own purposes or as contributions to other sites now long digitally decayed and dormant.  These reviews/articles will appear in their nearly raw, unaltered form, with a few updated thoughts at the beginning of each.

About Neal Ulen

Neal Ulen
Editor/Webmaster - Neal is a writer and recovering engineer who likes pizza, the insidious power of sarcasm (and pizza), and debating science fiction (and pizza). You can also find his writing on Omni, Geeks, and other media platforms.