Shadow of a Vampire
review by Carrie Gorringe, 26 January 2001

At one point in his pre-Oscar career, you might recall, Nicolas Cage made an infamous, because genuine, meal from some bugs in the 1989 film, Vampire's Kiss. Now, as the co-producer of Shadow of the Vampire, he gives Willem Dafoe the privilege of indulging in some outré dining of his own. Shadow is a fictionalized account, a conceit, if you will, concerning the backstage history surrounding director F.W. Murnau's creation of the classic vampire film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors (Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922, usually referred to simply as Nosferatu; the full title simply differentiates it from Werner Herzog's 1979 remake). This version of events suggests Stanislavskian methodology run amok: in order to give Nosferatu its unparalleled on-screen atmosphere of terror, Murnau (John Malkovich) creates an inadvertently Faustian bargain with his lead actor, Max Schreck (Dafoe). Murnau forces Schreck to live the part of the undead twenty-four hours a day (to the point of locking him in the castle at night and making him sleep in a dirt-filled coffin!). This is obviously not a good idea since Schreck, visually speaking, is already half-way there (with his pallid complexion and sinister, scimitar-shaped ears that seem less like ears than outcroppings of his bald head, he is not the type of person one wants to encounter anywhere, never mind the proverbial dark alley). As the production is delayed due to a lack of funds, and as poor Schreck begins to lose touch with reality, believing that he really is Nosferatu, the balance of power on the set shifts from director to actor, bats lose their heads (see the outré dining experience listed above) and the lives of the crew are as in as much peril as the film's completion date (there is, of course, even more irony, however unintentional, in the madman's off-screen surname: "schrecklich" means "dreadful" in German. But, for all of Schreck's horrifying appearance and comportment in Nosferatu, he was an "undistinguished" actor and person off stage, according to Murnau historian Lotte Eisner; the fact that Schreck appeared in at least one of Murnau's later films indicates that rumors of his vampirism were groundless, at least where Murnau was concerned).

In order to comprehend the logic, if you will, behind this film's plot, a little back story is useful. Murnau, perhaps the most famous of the German Expressionist filmmakers, had a unique gift for combining subtle, fluid camera movement and psychologically "expressive" symbolism with images that are, for lack of a better term, both "psychologically" and "artistically" composed at once. Working in 1920s Berlin, during the pre-Nazi era known as the Weimar Republic, Murnau was, arguably, the "master" of his coterie). (his other works include masterpieces such as The Last Man (1925) and Sunrise (1927) – the latter being his only American film and the one responsible for garnering the first Best Actress Oscar for Janet Gaynor). His death in a car crash in 1931 restricted only his output, but not his long-lasting reputation or influence among film scholars and filmmakers (I'll leave it to the more adventurous to dig up Kenneth Anger's more salacious account of Murnau's demise, as well as Eisner's denunciation of Anger's "venomousness").

Given this synopsis, there might be an expectation that something is really at stake (pun fully intended ) in this film. This would be a wrong assumption. Once the exquisite Art Nouveau-inspired, sepia-tinted opening credits pass by , Shadow of the Vampire is both silly and sanguinary, but can't even take the fatuousness and violence, along with its provocative premise, and do anything interesting with them. Too often, the film plays like a how-not-to manual on filmmaking, and the reasons are elemental, hence devastating to the film's effectiveness. Once the pretentiousness and so-called shock value are stripped away from the film, there is nothing more here than the gritty aftertaste of camp, but Shadow doesn't possess the possibility of reaching the unabashed mania of Rocky Horror. Shadow seems to disdain an ironically populist mentality in favor of subtextual aims as explained by Merhige in an interview for a recent edition of the on-line magazine IndieWIRE: the film is an examination of the ambiguous distinction between reality and fantasy, especially in art, although he doesn't quite explain why this topic is relevant to the film. While the obvious redundancy of such an exploration comes immediately to mind, one might be more charitable and assume that Merhige is recalling Murnau's talent for melding the realistic and the fantastic into a mystical whole (a gift which is especially evident in Tabu (1931), his final film, a visually sumptuous quasi-documentary he made with filmmaker Robert Flaherty), as well as the folly of artists who believe that the two states of existence can be maintained as disparate units, and that they can be manipulated with impunity. Instead of a new take on an old theme, Merhige and screenwriter Katz rely to an almost unhealthy extent upon trying to blend the immorality of the Weimar artistic milieu to ramp up the on-screen proceedings by employing the usual clichés, and it fails miserably (this from a director so fond of heavily-freighted symbolism, as in his 1991 film, Begotten); instead, you get the usual chomping on body parts and the blood dripping from arms due to hypodermics that have had too much contact in a narcotic sense of the term so characteristic of the horror genre and/or social exposé film respectively; the stiff close-ups of wickedness in Weimar terms (and even the lightning-fast edits are stiffly composed), tend not to produce repulsion and fear as much as contempt and laughter, despite a visual treatment of violence which can best be described as lustful (calling it "obscene" would grant it a much greater power to shock than it actually can). Shadow is clearly attempting to readdress the well-worn topic of ontology by filtering it through blackly humorous sensibilities, but this is a point that Shadow does not effectively make, for the most simple of reasons: because it is caught, most likely unintentionally, within those same well-worn theories through its own incompetence.

More critically, however – and inexplicably – Shadow doesn't bother to provide much in historical context or insights into the characters' psyches. The audience gets little more on these subjects than an introductory titlecard, from which they are supposed to glean every single aspect of the historical backstory behind the film and thus to marvel at the filmmakers' inventiveness and sophistication; There is just one slight problem with this approach from a purely practical point of view: Murnau's name is no longer of the household variety; under the circumstances, the film really can't be perceived as anything more than a snobbish parlor game for graduates of Film Studies 101. Merhige and Katz seem to have forgotten the essential rule in blending black comedy and horror, as expressed by horror master James Whale (Ian McKellan) in 1998's Gods and Monsters: success never lies in alienating those in the audience "who aren't in on the joke". Unfortunately, and ultimately, the joke ends up being at Shadow's expense. It wants to have a mass audience (at least, one might hope so; generally speaking, most producers don't go into cinema hoping to commit fiscal suicide) and a sense of the arcane all at once. More succinctly, the film wants to have it both ways and ends by having neither.

But perhaps the most shocking aspect of Shadow is its ability to take considerable talent and slowly but surely bleed the life from it. Since Murnau was gay, Merhige and Katz seem to think that it's an inspired idea to place Malkovich in the position of portraying the director as a Teutonic screaming queen of the worst sort, with no redeeming qualities, and certainly no empathy for his crew as they suffer to realize his "vision". Dafoe's acting skills are buried under, rather than enhanced by, makeup which is one of the best examples of the craft ever created; the audience is more fascinated in a how'd-they-do-that fashion with the peerless work of makeup designer Ann Buchanan and makeup artist Katja Reinert than on Dafoe as an artist. Throughout the film, the combined and considerable talent of the two men are degraded to the point where there is nothing more for them to do than hiss and tear at each other alternately (thus making them both this year's hands-down winners of what Pauline Kael once dubbed the Klaus Kinski Scenery-Chewing Award). The wonderfully tart comedian Eddie Izzard and poor old Udo Kier (who, ever since Barb Wire, seems to have gotten into a rut playing the role of a passive, loyal factotum) come off best of all, but that may have to do with their rather more marginal roles. They should feel blessed.

All things ludicrous are assisted by the dialogue, which has a stench even ranker than that of any two-week-old corpse. Malkovich is the least fortunate of the lot: as the central character, it is his futile goal to try and pump life (and credibility) into inanities such as "Thank God for an end to all this [studio-bound] artifice," and, "If it's not in the frame, it doesn't exist!" . In another scene, Murnau is seen berating Schreck for eating the film's cinematographer rather than the script girl, to which Schreck responds in lugubriously sardonic tones, "I'll eat her tomorrow." It's supposed to be a uproariously arch exchange, and, it just might have been, had the film been on a more secure footing at that point, but by the time the exchange appears, it comes too late to salvage anything. You don't know whether you're laughing with them or at them. Meanwhile, everyone else on-screen quivers in disbelief, an attitude which the audience cannot eventually help but assume. Shadow of the Vampire is a curse to all who wasted valuable money and time on a product that should have had a stake hammered through its heart at pre-production.

Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' interview.

Directed by:
E. Elias Merhige

John Malkovich
Willem Dafoe
Udo Kier
Cary Elwes
Catherine McCormack
Eddie Izzard
Aden Gillett
Ronan Vibert
Ingeborga Dapkunaite
Nicholas Elliott
Derek Kueter
Sophie Langevin
Tania Marzen
Myriam Muller
Orian Williams

Written by:
Steven Katz

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult





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