Review – Shadow of the Vampire

Shadow of the Vampire [2000]

Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Screenwriter: Steven Katz

Imagine that Max Schreck, the man who played Count Orlok in the original Dracula adaptation, Nosferatu, was actually a vampire, hired by director F.W. Murnau. That’s the concept behind Shadow of the Vampire It may sound ridiculous in concept, but in execution, it’s absolutely fascinating.

John Malkovich plays Murnau as a man obsessed with his film, and with its authenticity. That’s, of course, why he hired Schreck, whom he explains to his crew is (what we would now refer to as) a method actor. He will only be seen in full makeup, only at night, and be referred to as Count Orlok. When the crew finally meet him, on location at his “castle”, they’re shocked by the realism that he portrays, and some hail him as a brilliant actor. But suddenly some of the crew start dying, or getting sick. No one seems to make the connection.

It may sound hilarious, and as I recall, that’s how it was marketed in its trailer and such. But it’s not a funny film. Not, at least, in a laugh-out-loud way. It’s funny in the sense that there’s an inside joke, and we know it. But the vampire himself is frightening. Willem Dafoe has never been better, and plays the part so that, while we watch the film, in a very strange way, it becomes somewhat plausible.

Dafoe’s performance is really the center of the picture. If there was a missed note, it might not have been pulled off correctly. Of course what we’re watching is, in concept, a little absurd. But because Dafoe commits to the character, because he immerses himself to the point of being almost unrecognizable, we are able to believe what he’s showing us.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film are the transitions from filming the black-and-white to fading slowly into color. You have to see it to believe it. Those who know nothing of the original 1922 Nosferatu will find it interesting. Those that know the original will be captivated.

In a way, the filmmakers are doing precisely what Malkovich’s Murnau wants to do: make it authentic. Make it as real as possible, so it’s as plausible as possible. And they certainly do it. Though after the credits roll through we snap back to reality, for the 93 minutes we’re involved, it certainly doesn’t seem too far outside the realm of possibility.

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