In 1922 German director V.S. Murnau revolutionized the genre of the horror film with Nosferatutu, a silent picture with a bloodthirsty vampire as its central character. Murnau could not acquire the rights to film the story of the famous Dracula, so he simply created the character of “Count Orlock” to replace him. Now, decades later Shadow of the Vampire (Lion’s Gate), in theatres Friday, seeks to put a creative spin on the making of that film.
Shadow of the Vampire centers around the filming of Nosferatutu in 1922, when the movie’s director, Murnau (John Malcovich), decides to cast a vampire rather than an actor. Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), a creature of the night from the mountains of Czechoslovakia who has a passion for bats and human blood, agrees to play the main role in the classic movie.
Such an unusual idea for a film could have produced a refined piece of historical and comic fiction. Instead, Vampire‘s convoluted script overshadows the film’s artistic merits. High points, such as beautiful cinematography, an eloquent score and Dafoe’s excellent vampire performance are lost because of an often meandering script.
Of course almost any film about filmmaking delivers a message about the industry itself. In this case it, the lesson arrives in the form of a metaphor. As Schreck frightens and eventually feasts upon crew members, it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish the vampire from Murnau, whose deception and willingness to let his crew fall prey to Schreck is all apparently in the name of art.
Murnau forces his actors, including Gustav von Wagenheim (Eddie Izzard) and starlet Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack), to shoot on location at night when dealing with Schreck. He claims Shreck comes from the Stanislavsky school of method acting, and thus will remain in makeup and in character for the duration of the shoot – sort of like a monstrous Andy Kaufman.
The verbose Murnau, who utters such lines to Greta as “The ultimate expression of love is the most exquisite pain,” convinces the cast to come along on his extended ego trip and finish the film, even after Schreck begins to terrorize the crew.
The real star is Dafoe, who transforms himself from an actor usually overshadowed by others to the main attraction. His ghoulish makeup, complete with shaved head, extended fingernails and a range of facial expression would have been frightening if the context of the film were different. Dafoe sports the quintessential vampire accent, which fits the movie well.
Malkovich and the rest of the cast give fairly inspired performances, leaving the substance of the movie as its biggest downfall. In the midst of in-jokes about the film industry and showdowns between Murnau and Schreck, Steven Katz’s script can never decide if it wants to make an attempt at terror.
Toward the end of the film, the introduction of Fritz Wagner (Cary Elwes) as a drug-addicted cinematographer seems pointless and only adds to other muddled intentions director E. Elias Merhige might have had.
The film substitutes novelty – the device of viewing the scenes in black and white as they appear in Nosferatu and then in reality – for characterization. Although a metaphor is evident, the two main characters are both, in their own way, archetypal demons and nothing more.
Some scenes drag on too long, but the film ends abruptly. Shadow of a Vampire does portray early filmmaking in an entertaining manner, and Dan Jones III’s music goes perfectly with the setting. Unfortunately, these factors cannot outweigh the ever-important element of film: a good script. The film the ends up as just another vampire movie that is not Dracula (Columbia TriStar).
Shadow of a Vampire is in theaters Friday