Shadow of the Vampire

(USA - 2000)

by Mike McGowan

Cast: Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, Cary Elwes, Aden Gillett, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack
Genre: Horror
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Screenplay: Steven Katz
Cinematography: Lou Bogue
Composer: Dan Jones
Runtime: 91 minutes

Shadow of the Vampire contains the most original story of the 2000 Oscar season while delivering one of the most entertaining films of the year. Seemingly lost among the fray of this year's two heavy hitter Best Picture contenders (Gladiator and the slightly more deserving Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Shadow of the Vampire is one of the most satisfying, energetic films to come along in years. Director E. Elias Merhige masterfully guides two of this era's greatest talents through a brilliant script that is comedic, dramatic and tragic all at once. The entire film is nothing short of a triumph.

The film takes us back to 1920s Germany, where legendary director F.W. Murnau is just beginning production of what would be hailed as the greatest adaptation of Dracula ever made, Nosferatu (read Mike Lorefice's review, then go watch it.) However, instead of being a biography or period piece, this film is pure fiction. In a sort of Marvel Comics "What If" twist, the movie weaves a tale in which Murnau, pursuing the pinnacle of his art, contracts a real vampire to play the lead role of his film.

The entire Shadow project is a demonstration of what can happen if all the planets are aligned, all the pieces fall perfectly into place, and the rain never falls on your picnic lunch. Besides his own beautiful directorial effort, Merhige has all the tools to work with. He has a fantastic script furnished by newcomer Steven Katz, a producer who believes in the project and the crew's autonomy in Nicolas Cage, a tremendous supporting cast of actors, and two of the most talented leading men drawing breath today. Such is the recipe for movie classic stew.

First, Carl Proctor deserves an award. Carl Proctor's mother deserves an award for giving birth to Carl. Carl Proctor was the casting director for Shadow of the Vampire. Bravo, Carl Proctor.

As I said earlier, the supporting cast is tremendous. Of special note however, is British comedian Eddie Izzard. If you have never seen any of his comedy specials, you are missing something special. Izzard plays actor Gustav von Wangenheim who in turn plays the lead human role in Nosferatu. Not only is his performance very amusing in the Shadow portions of the movie, but he is incredible when he recreates the silent Nosferatu scenes. Before sound was introduced to films, actors had a very different, perhaps much harder task at hand. They needed to convey the same emotion and strength but in a completely visual medium. Not only has Izzard shown great strengths as a modern actor, he masters the dual role of acting in a silent film. It is a breakthrough performance that doesn't get the credit it deserves.

Of course, Izzard's performance just may have been overlooked because of the two titans who also graced this picture. John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe establish themselves as two of this planet's finest acting talents with their performances. Malkovich plays the lead role of Murnau. Murnau is Germany's greatest director, and he is about to execute what he knows will be his masterpiece, his legacy piece. Malkovich plays perhaps the movies most difficult role. Murnau is very much the turn of the century European art noir type. In other words, he is high on fashion and social sense and very low on actual personality. Malkovich, however, strips the straight jacket from the role and makes Murnau burst forth with life, exploding with a rare passion and energy. I have read many reviews that claim the film is about Murnau being the real monster, and the vampire being the tragic victim. I love how those reviewers make it sound like they tapped into a deep hidden theme with that one. I don't buy it.

Murnau isn't a monster; he is more human than we give him credit for at the film's beginning. He is the only member of the cast and crew that is chasing a higher purpose. While he is a bit mad, he is no more so than any of the others...this is made evident in the final scene. No monster at all, he is simply chasing that ultimate "thing" that would justify his existence the same way we all chase that one thing in our own lives, be it fame, power, love or God. And like most of us, he can easily justify the expense to achieve it.

But as good as Malkovich is in his role, Willem Dafoe is simply unparalleled as actor/vampire, Max Schreck. The real life Max Schreck gave the world the most harrowing depiction of Dracula ever captured on celluloid. Willem Dafoe does that performance justice. Not only does he faithfully recreate the inimitable, he adds numerous layers of depth to the character. As versatile as Dafoe has proven himself to be in the past, his ability to display the humor, horror and tragic sadness of Count Orlock is breathtaking. Dafoe will rip your heart out in a simple scene involving a film projector and the morning sunrise. He also delivers a monologue containing the most striking appraisal of the Dracula novel I've ever heard, and he does so with a tender nobility that makes you finally understand the Dracula/Orlock character. In this role he is simply spellbinding. Mr. Crowe, I believe you have something that belongs to Mr. Dafoe, and I'd appreciate it if you would kindly hand it over.

As if the incredible performances and refreshing script were not enough, the film is coherently scored by Dan Jones, and the potent soundtrack only helps to heighten the drama. Throw in a top notch make-up department to help transform Dafoe into the unclean beast, and you have a movie that immerses you completely.

Shadow of the Vampire is extremely entertaining. Every time I finish watching it, I want to start it right back up again. It is the kind of movie that will have you repeating the humorous lines as you move about your house, and making creepy Schreck-like hand gestures to freak out your significant other long after viewing. Movies like this just don't come along often enough. Shadow is as captivating as it is fulfilling, and just writing this review pretty much guarantees I'll be watching it again tonight.




* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *