Drew does Shadow of the Vampire [plus retro review]

“Tell me how you would harm me, when even I don’t know how I could harm myself.”

The Scoop: 2000 R, directed by E. Elias Merhige and starring John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe and Cary Elwes

Tagline: An Unspeakable Horror. A Creative Genius. Captured For Eternity.

Summary Capsule: Life rather unpleasantly imitates art when the silent film Nosferatu acquires an “eccentric” new method actor. Very, very method.

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Drew’s Rating: I want to see Willem Dafoe, Christopher Walken, and Steve Buscemi in a Crazy Eyes-Off. I would pay very much money for this.

Drew’s Review: Like most geeks, I have a tendency to rebel against things that are popular with mainstream society. It’s something I’m aware of and try to resist, because I think a lot of geeks go too far in that direction, becoming contrary and pretentious just for the sake of it… the fact that most people don’t like your favorite obscure sci-fi show doesn’t mean it’s too smart for them, it might just be bad. Nonetheless, there’s a popular trend I’ve found myself resenting more and more in recent years, and that is the wussification of vampires. You can partially blame Anne Rice, though not entirely — “Interview with the Vampire” was a good book, it’s not her fault a hundred lesser authors since then have made a living cranking out softcore supernatural erotica for lonely housewives. But the more America embraces soulful, tormented vampires who don’t want to hurt anyone, the more I find myself drawn to the disgusting, repellent harbingers of pestilence from folklore. I’m funny that way, but luckily Shadow of the Vampire takes place 80+ years ago, and thus offers exactly what I’m looking for.

SotV is an historical drama with a twist, a central premise that’s both unique and intriguing. Simply put, it speculates that in the silent movie Nosferatu — an unauthorized adaptation of “Dracula” that would gain renown as one of the greatest early films ever made — the monstrous Count Orlock was played by an actual centuries-old vampire. Famous director F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) is a driven man in pursuit of high art, with the new medium of cinema as his canvas. His successes have been such that his crew are willing to forgive his, er, eccentricities, but upon arriving on location they meet Max Schreck (Dafoe), who will be portraying the titular character. A true method actor who immerses himself completely in his role, Schreck’s oddities are overlooked to a point due to his incredible performance as the vampire. But when it becomes clear that “Schreck” isn’t acting and Murnau’s bargain to gain his cooperation comes to light, it becomes less a matter of completing the film and more one of surviving it.

Other than a “what if?” film, SotV is difficult to classify. It’s not really scary or bloody enough to be a horror movie; it’s not an historical documentary because the premise is, obviously, fictional (we hope); and it has some dark laughs but certainly isn’t a comedy. What it is is good, though, and ultimately that’s what really matters. A huge portion of that credit has to go to Willem Dafoe, with an assist to his makeup artists. In DnaError’s original review, he described Dafoe’s performance as a precursor to his later role as the Green Goblin, but as much as I loved Spider-Man, there’s no comparison. In that movie he just cackled a lot and changed voices; in SotV he actually seems to be channeling something unearthly. I defy anyone to watch Dafoe’s eyes during his interactions with Malkovich, to study his mannerisms and not truly believe you’re seeing a creature that isn’t fully human. There’s one scene where Murnau loses his temper and throttles Orlock, only to realize that it’s having absolutely no effect; seeing Dafoe’s ghastly, gloating smile, you honestly don’t know whether he’s about to break Murnau’s neck, empty his veins, or simply let him go. What makes the overall effect so impressive is that it’s accomplished not with CGI, just with impeccable acting by someone who knows his craft and brought his A-game. Damn, Dafoe is great in this.

If I have any criticism of the film, it’s that some of the events transpiring are left mostly to our imaginations. So much time is spent (effectively, it must be said) establishing mood and building suspense, that it sometimes feels like the plot gets short shrift. We don’t see much of Orlock attacking people, and after one initial uproar, surprisingly little seems to be made of why the crew keeps decreasing in size. Likewise, the drug subplots don’t feel fully explored, and the ending seems to arrive sooner than expected. Being generous, maybe it’s a conscious homage to “Dracula,” where we see far less of the Count than we’d like (in contrast to his bungling adversaries, who fill rather more pages than strictly desired). Either way, I wouldn’t mind an extended edition or something. But ultimately, while I can’t claim that SotV will be to everyone’s tastes, if you have even the slightest interest in the early days of cinema or vampires in general, you have to see this movie. And even if you don’t, it might be worth taking a gamble on anyway.

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DnaError’s Rating: Doesn’t Suck.

DnaError’s Review: Shadow of the Vampire is one of my favorite types of movies, a “what if?” movie. What if ghosts inhabited New York? What if you couldn’t tell a robot from a human? And, in this movie’s case, what if the star of the horror classic Nosferatu was actually a real vampire? That the movie was intended to be a documentary of the creature rather then fiction? This movie wouldn’t of had a large audience despite the it was the bad marketing. The commercial for the movie had you believing that it’s a comedy. A light hearted spoof and farce about eccentric directors and old timey Hollywood. Sure, SotV has its share of comic relief, but it also has horror, romance, pathos, melodrama, and kind of movie weirdness that is anything but farcical. It refuses to conform to your expectations and demands you to follow it into its own dark, giddy world. No wonder most people didn’t bother with it.

It would be better to call SotV a historical horror movie with brushes of comedy, but that doesn’t fit it either. Many of its in-jokes require knowledge of the production of Nosferatu, and it never becomes “jump out of your seat” scary. Yet the movie remains disquietly odd. It fetishes the devices of silent movie production, as well as capturing the directing style of 30s movies. Look for the lack of cuts and pans compared to modern movies. SotV looks almost static in comparison. Stuck between the period when movies where just short filmed pieces and full feature length events, the 1930s movies have a look and style which is not quite modern and all dependent on the whims of a powerful director and a small crew. A look which is perfectly captured by SotV, to the delight of film buffs everywhere.

Built around the basic “what if?”, the movie follows the dictatorial Director Franz Murnau as he struggles to complete his silent masterpiece. A great director, all the while keeping the identity of his “high maintenance” star hidden while the crew start dropping like flies.

Willem Dafoe vanishes into his makeup as the centuries-old Count Orlock, clicking his nails and gravely tenor. The inspiration for Dafoe’s “Green Goblin” in Spider-Man is seen in Orlock’s distorted sneer and voice. Malkovich delivers a performance that, on a lesser actor, would seem melodramatic and overwrought. His devotion to completing the film makes us wonder, who is the real vampire? Orlock? Or the movie which demands more and more sacrifices to be completed? It’s a film geek theory right at home in a movie about a movie, and provides another layer to an already layered film.

Like the ornate art deco painting in the beginning of the movie, Shadow of the Vampire is at once beautiful, arcane, funny, horrifying, and indescribably odd. A one-of-a-kind movie experience.

"Oh Azrael, we'll get those Smurfs next time!"

Intermission!

  • Nosferatu was originally intended as a straight adaptation of “Dracula.” When Bram Stoker’s widow refused to sell the rights to the studio, they proceeded anyway, simply changing characters’ names and some minor details. When Florence Stoker learned of this, she sued for copyright infringement and won. The courts ordered all prints of Nosferatu destroyed, but fortunately copies had already been distributed around the world, so a classic film was not lost to the ages. However, many of the copies were incomplete, and it’s only relatively recently that complete and fully restored versions of the film have become available.
  • Perhaps in an effort to avoid copyright infringement, Nosferatu presented a different kind of vampire from Count Dracula, who could pass for human and helped establish the “romantic vampire” archetype. By contrast, Count Orlock looks quite inhuman, with his rat-like features and long fingernails. His victims do not turn into vampires after they die, and he spreads plague wherever he goes. Nosferatu also singlehandedly established the notion that sunlight is harmful to vampires. In the novel, Dracula’s powers were limited during the day but he could (and did) walk around in the sun, whereas Count Orlock was the first vampire for whom daylight was actually lethal.
  • SotV takes its premise from the fact that Max Schreck was a little-known actor before and even after Nosferatu was made. This, combined with the fact that “Schreck” is German for “fright” or “terror,” led some historians to speculate that “Max Schreck” was an alias for a more famous actor. In fact, that was the actor’s real name; he had primarily done theatre work prior to Nosferatu, and would go on to do a variety of comedic roles before dying of a heart attack in 1936.
  • Similarly, SotV presents Greta Schroder as a famous actress, when in reality she was fairly unknown at the time.
  • At one point Orlock recites lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Tithonus,” which concerns a character from Greek mythology who is immortal but continues to age.
  • Udo Kier, the actor who portrays producer Albin Grau, himself played Dracula in an Italian film, as well as a vampire elder in Blade.
  • At one point, Albin calls Murnau one of the greatest moviemakers ever, along with [D.W.] Griffith and [Sergei M.] Eisenstein. In 1921 Eisenstein had not yet directed any movies (his first one was in 1923).
  • You can briefly see Orlock in a mirror only moments after a big to-do is made over the fact that he casts no reflection. This may be an error, or an intentional homage to Nosferatu the Vampyre, a ’70s remake of Nosferatu in which a similar gaffe occurs.
  • The locomotive that conveys the film crew to Czechoslovakia is named “Charon.” In Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman who conveyed the souls of the dead across the river Styx.

Groovy Quotes

    Murnau: Greta, why would you possibly want to act in a play when you can act in a film?
    Greta: A theatrical audience gives me life, while this — thing — merely takes it from me.

    Murnau: Our battle, our struggle is to create art. Our weapon is the moving picture. Because we have the moving picture, our paintings will grow and recede, our poetry will be shadows that lengthen and conceal, our light will play across living faces that laugh and agonize, and our music will linger and finally overwhelm, because it will have a context as certain as the grave. We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory. But our memory will neither blur, nor fade.

    Albin: Doctor, these people cannot act!
    Murnau: They don’t need to act. They need to be.

    Henrik: I would like to congratulate Herr Schreck on his extraordinary appearance.
    Murnau: For the remainder of the shoot, he will be Count Orlock, to himself and to all of us. Just leave the man alone, he will be completely authentic. He’s not interested in our questions or our praise or our conversations. He’s chasing an altogether different ghost.

    Orlock: There was a time when I fed from golden chalices. But now — don’t look at me that way! In my old age, I feed the way old men pee. Sometimes all at once, sometimes drop by drop. I told you… I feed erratically. Often, enormously.

    Murnau: Why him, you monster? Why not the… script girl?
    Orlock: [chuckles] The script girl… I’ll eat her later.

    Murnau: You want to eat the writer? Be my guest. That will leave you to explain how else your character is supposed to get to Bremen.

    Murnau: Don’t think I can’t harm you.
    Orlock: Tell me how you would harm me, when even I don’t know how I could harm myself.

    Henrik: Well now, this is a golden opportunity. Speaking as a vampire, what do you make of [“Dracula”]’s technical merits?
    Orlock: It made me sad.
    Albin: Why sad?
    Orlock: Because Dracula had no servants.
    Albin: I think you missed the point of the book, Count Orlock.
    Orlock: Dracula hasn’t had servants in 400 years, and then a man comes to his ancestral home, and he must convince him that he — that he is like the man. He has to feed him, when he himself hasn’t eaten food in centuries. Can he even remember how to buy bread? How to select cheese and wine? And then he remembers the rest of it- how to prepare a meal, how to make a bed. He remembers his first glory, his armies, his retainers, and what he is reduced to. The loneliest part of the book comes when the man accidentally sees Dracula setting his table.

    Murnau: I will finish my picture!
    Orlock: This is hardly your picture any longer.

    Murnau: Our work is nearly complete. Our very own painting on our very own cave wall. Time will no longer be a dark spot on our lungs. They will no longer be able to say, “You would have to of been there.” Because the fact is, Albin, we were.

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:

  • Nosferatu
  • Nosferatu the Vampyre
  • Dracula

2 comments

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