Shadow Of The Vampire



US 2000
dir E Elias Merhige
scr Steven Katz
cin Lou Bogue
stars John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe
93 minutes

FW Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu is the kind of film described as an all time classic by people who haven’t seen it in years, if ever. (Review here) But, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, it has inspired some weird offshoots: Werner Herzog’s slavish (and wildly underrated) 1979 remake; krautrockers Faust’s album Faust Wakes Nosferatu; Jim Shepard’s Murnau novel Nosferatu In Love. And now, most intriguing of all, Shadow of the Vampire, a fictionalised drama based on the making of the movie itself, with Malkovich as Murnau and Dafoe is Max Schreck, the ‘actor’ playing the Dracula character, who may or may not be an actual vampire himself…

It’s a great concept – but the execution falls short. Previously known for daring, experimental avant garde work, Merhige strains to deliver a movie acceptable to mainstream audiences and ends up falling between every stool. Shadow does have an audacious, idiosyncratic, quirky energy that alternates between laughs and chills, and there’s no faulting the careful recreation of Murnau’s shots. The casting is spot on – Udo Kier looks bemused to find himself in a movie in which he’s giving the third weirdest performance, while Eddie Izzard is amusingly convincing as a terrible actor.

But the end product feels strangely cobbled-together, and it’s no surprise to hear Merhige’s original cut was significantly longer – this is one movie which would have justified a two-hour running time. Several scenes feel cut short, adding to confusions in the disjointed script, with many plot strands and characters (especially McCormack’s languid female lead) left undeveloped. There’s a clumsy reliance on deadpan intertitles – though this is, to be fair, in keeping with the stilted original.

And, as with the original Nosferatu, it really takes off whenever the vampire is on screen – Dafoe makes the most of a dream role which has Oscar written all over it. But his tremendously controlled, physical performance doesn’t quite make sense in the context of the way his character’s ambiguities are ultimately resolved – and in retrospect it’s the unexpectedly restrained Malkovich who stands out. He pulls the movie into shape around him, just as, in the phenomenal, tense finale – easily the best scene – Murnau asserts his control as chaos threatens: “If it’s not in the frame, it doesn’t exist,” he rasps, cross-eyed with a mixture of arrogance and desperation.