Dir: E. Elias Merhige. UK-US. 2000. 93 mins.
Prod co: Long Shot Films. Int'l Sales: Lions Gate Films. Prods; Nicolas Cage, Jeff Levine. Exec Prod: Paul Brooks. Co-prods: Jimmy De Brabant, Richard Johns. Scr: Steven Katz. DoP: Lou Bogue. Prod Des: Assheton Gorton. Ed: Chris Wyatt. Mus: Dan Jones. Main cast: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard.
The making of F.W. Murnau's seminal vampire classic Nosferatu is the solid springboard for Shadow Of The Vampire, an imaginative, atmospheric fiction exploring the magic of the moving image and the fine line between genius and insanity. An intriguing and diverting tale, it may be a little too offbeat and specialised for mainstream tastes but the star cast, dark humour and overall imagination should propel it well beyond Festival exposure and cult status.
A perfect companion piece to Gods And Monsters in its cocktail of fact and fantasy, the film hinges on the wittily sustained premise that Nosferatu star Max Schreck (Dafoe) was a real vampire. As obsessive, autocratic director Murnau (Malkovich) brings his cast and crew to a remote, eerie location he warns them that Schreck will not be a conventional co-star. He will stay in character at all times, never socialise with his fellow actors and only film once the sun has set. Would that some modern prima donnas could be so accommodating.
In truth, Schreck is a creature of the night who has promised his services to Murnau in return for the opportunity to feast on the blood of delectable leading lady Greta (McCormack). A wonderful, inventive performance from Dafoe brings this skewered vision of Schreck vividly to life. An uncanny make-up job renders him the spitting image of the grotesque, cadaverous star and a close reading of Nosferatu supplies him with the jerky physical movements and snarling features of the man. Much of the film's humour comes from the forlorn vampire's reactions to the moviemaking process ("I would like make-up," he growls petulantly) and the blissful ignorance of those around him. Fellow thespians merely regard him as the ultimate method actor.
Malkovich seems equally engaged by the character of Murnau as a director committed to film as an art form and willing to pact with the devil if it will bring his authentic vision to the screen. Movieland insiders should be able to identify with his character as well. Scenes from the original Nosferatu are carefully recreated in black-and-white with supporting players like Eddie Izzard given the tricky task of emulating the clunky acting styles of the period. Director E. Elias Merhige shifts into colour for all the behind-the-scenes dramas as Schreck tires of keeping his bloodlust in check and the increasingly suspicious crew become potential victims of his hunger. Given the spectacular results he has been getting, the questions of whether Murnau is prepared to sacrifice lives for his art seems almost academic.
Always maintaining the interest over a trim running time, Shadow Of The Vampire could definitely be considered a little odd but it does silence your doubts and win you over. Given a comparatively rare chance to display his gift for comedy, Dafoe's performance alone is worth the price of admission.