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SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack
Director:  E. Elias Merhige
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  93 Minutes
Release Date:  May 29, 2001

“I would like to congratulate Herr Schreck…”
“He is Count Orlock now.  To himself, and to us.  He is not interested in our questions, our praise, our conversation…he has his own ghosts to chase…”


Film ***1/2

Nosferatu, the great “Symphony of Horror” remains an effective supernatural thriller some 80 years after its original release, largely because of the work of two men:  the flamboyant and brilliant expressionistic German director Fredrick Wilhelm Murnau, and the unparalleled, monstrous performance of the vampire by actor Max Schreck.   Oddly enough, though the film itself remains famous, as does Murnau, Schreck is a figure very little is known about.  Though no on-screen vampire depiction has ever matched his creepy, otherworldly and rodent-like visualization, he seemed to have done very little before or after Nosferatu, leaving a single, strange role as his sole claim to remembrance.

Which is enough of a curiosity to inspire one of the year’s most unique, daring and entertaining comedy thrillers, Shadow of the Vampire.  Screenwriter Steven Katz and director E. Elias Merhige dare to ask:  what if Schreck’s legendary performance was, in fact, no performance at all?   What if Murnau’s legendary obsessiveness and madness drove him to seek out the ultimate for his film…a real vampire?

Of course, such speculation is the work of pure fantasy…and yet, from a historical performance, it intrigues immensely.   I doubt the ancestors of both the Schreck and the Murnau line would find the suggestion amusing that the former was really an undead, inhuman blood drinker and that the latter was mad enough to put him to work on a film set despite the chaos and deaths that it caused.  Yet this movie has such an appreciation for the pure, raw power of Nosferatu, it’s easy to lend oneself to the possibility.  That, and the brilliant performances by Malkovich and Dafoe as Murnau and Schreck, respectively.

As the film begins, we see that Nosferatu is a film being made under tight security…after all, the story was a thinly disguised version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which Murnau and crew did not have the rights to.  His team is even more perplexed by the great director’s insistence on leaving the comfort of the studio for Czechoslovakia, where they learn, they will only film at night.  They also learn of their new star:  a bizarre, method actor who will only appear in character and should always be addressed as Count Orlock.

The work Murnau is getting is brilliant, of course (and as a nice touch, many scenes from the original Nosferatu are painstakingly and lovingly recreated with black and white photography and iris effects), but things begin to go awry when the cameraman turns up dead.  This leads to an absurd conversation between director and star, where the irate filmmaker demands to know why he didn’t eat the script girl instead.   “I’ll eat her later,” the count offers.

For those unfamiliar with Nosferatu, the finale is reconstructed here in full detail, along with lovely leading lady Greta (McCormack), but there is a foreboding undercurrent…we have learned that part of Murnau’s deal for hiring Schreck is that he can feast on the blood of the leading lady after the last shot is wrapped.

Dafoe’s Oscar nominated performance is impeccable…he creates for the screen not a realistic version of Max Schreck, but the kind of vision of Schreck we fans of Nosferatu have always secretly clung to.  He brings the vampire to life with both evil and empathy.

Equally excellent is Malkovich, who makes Murnau an almost more frightening character from time to time.  His maniacal willingness to placate the evil count, and to capture some of his most horrifying deeds on film with an almost eager, almost mesmerized state is a true portrait of genius giving way to madness.

Francois Truffaut once claimed he was only interested in movies that expressed either the joy of making movies or the heartache of making movies.  I think he would have greatly enjoyed this one, since it expresses the horror of making movies.   Shadow of the Vampire is an entertaining mix of uneasy humor, gruesome fun and macabre delight that shouldn’t be taken to seriously, but should be bought into enough to at least imagine the fantastic possibilities for an hour and a half.

Video ***1/2

This is a terrific anamorphic offering from Universal.  Shadow is a film very much in the expressionistic style of the silent film that inspired it, and its extreme lighting and shadow play make for a very challenging transfer.  The DVD lives up to expectations, creating natural looking and haunting imagery from the brightest, crispest outdoor scenes to the murkiest, most dimly lit unwholesome interiors.  I noticed very little grain, which is quite a compliment for a film that spends so much time in low lighting.  There was no evidence of compression despite the numerous features and added DTS track…save for a few bits of noticeable pock marks and specks on the print itself, this is an overall quality offering.

Audio ***

Though not a horror movie per se, Shadow’s 5.1 soundtrack is treated like one, with plenty of dynamic potency, ethereal music (by Dan Jones), and subtle though unextensive uses of the surrounds for atmospheric effect.  You have a choice of Dolby Digital or DTS tracks, too.

Features ***1/2

This disc didn’t receive a “Collector’s Edition” label from Universal, but you can pretty much consider it one, anyway.  The features package starts off with a compelling commentary track by director Merhige.  There is also a short making-of featurette, supported by three separate interview segments, one with Merhige, one with Dafoe, and one with producer Nicholas Cage.  There are photo galleries, a trailer, talent files, and production notes as well.

Summary:

Nosferatu remains one of the most effective vampire movies ever made because it’s one where we actually believe in the vampire.  Shadow of the Vampire delightfully and frightfully confirms what fans have suspected all along.  By mixing reality with a generous dose of fantasy, this easily ranks as one of the more original and more satisfying films of recent years.  Recommended.