Shadow of the Vampire

Review by Mike Finkelstein

In 1922, F.W. Murnau directed the film Nosferatu, a creative retelling of the novel, Dracula -- a "retelling" because the Stoker estate would not grant the production company the rights to the original story, so they just changed the names and locations in the book and left everything else largely the same. Filming on location around the ruins and buildings of Germany, the production turned out a classic of the silent film era.

But what if the vampire in Nosferatu wasn't just an actor. What the vampire in the film had been played by an actual vampire, a creature of the night? What might have happened during the fateful production then?

That's the story of Shadow of the Vampire, a darkly comic re-imagining of the filming of Nosferatu. The movie follows the production from the early days at the outset of filming all the way through, fairly linearly, to the end when Count Orlok, the nosferatu, is killed by the rays of the sun. Of course, since the movie is only concerned with the times where the vampire is on set, we don't get to see the full production (with all the scenes of other characters), but what parts we see are fairly accurate to the original movie. The producers did a good job replicating the style of the original film even if the details aren't one-to-one accurate (performances are a little different, and many of the locations and props are noticeably different if you compare the two movies back to back.

Those are minor quibbles, though, with a movie that has such fun poking at the original production. Much of the humor is derived from the count getting into trouble, eating cast members and just, basically, being a vampire. Since the director knows his lead is a vampire, his attempts to talk around the dangers and wave off the concerns of his crew give the film a manic sensibility and energy that helps to carry the concept through the film's run time.

But then, much of that credit does need to go to the two leads of Shadow of the Vampire, John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe. Malkovich is fantastic at playing unhinged characters, and his Murnau fits right into his oeuvre. This is a man driven to complete the film he believes will be his masterpiece, the most authentic vampire film ever made, and he's willing to ignore all the consequences of what this means to make the film he envisions. Dafoe, meanwhile, is a delight to watch as the vampire, with all the little ticks and twists he gives to the character. Just watching him wander around, grinning and twitching, just inhabiting the role. Dafoe is proven to have a weird way of taking over any role he's put in, and it's hard to imagine anyone else doing quite a good a job with Max Schrek as Dafoe does here.

The film isn't without it's flaws, though. Some suspension of disbelief is required to imagine that the crew would stick around to continue filming once some of the crew members began dying. And, once the vampire is revealed to more people than just the director, it's all but impossible to believe that they would then willing go along with filming the last scene (or that they'd let anything that happens there-in play out the way it does). Plus, the last quarter of the film beings to drag in places, probably because Dafoe has the least amount of screen time in this section.

Still, despite a few issues, Shadow of the Vampire is a fine addition to the horror genre. It's very watchable, especially because of the leads and it's dark, playful humor. This film might not be for everyone, but fans of the genre, or classic film productions, will get a kick out of this movie.