Shadow of the Vampire


Bloodlust. On the set of Nosferatu, director FW Murnau (Malkovich) sets up a scene between Greta and the vampire (McCormack and Dafoe).
dir E Elias Merhige scr Steven Katz
with John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier, John Aden Gillet, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes, Ronan Vibert, Orian Williams, Tania Marzen, Nicholas Elliot, Myriam Muller
BBC 00/UK 4 out of 5 stars
Review by Rich Cline
It starts as a voyage behind the scenes of FW Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu, the first--and easily the best ever--vampire thriller. But just as things get interesting, there's a subtle twist and we head off into some very interesting directions indeed as the film gets both funnier and scarier by the minute.

Murnau (Malkovich, resplendent in camp dictatorial filmmaker mode) is a director with a vision. And just because Bram Stoker's widow refuses to sell him the rights to Dracula doesn't mean he can't make a vampire movie. So he renames his antihero Count Orlock and sets out to break all the rules of filmmaking at the time, much to the horror of his producer (Kier), screenwriter (Gillet) and leading actors (McCormack and Izzard). His use of real-life creepy locations, in an era when everything is shot on fake sets, is unsettling enough. But in the role of Orlock he casts Max Schreck (Dafoe), a method actor who's never out of character ... or maybe he's actually be one of the undead!

Katz' fiercely clever script plays like a finely detailed historical reconstruction, with a lot of humour and cinematic irony thrown in. Then the story warps into a vampire thriller all its own, and things get even more gleefully sinister, with the moviemaking metaphor springing vividly to life in the capable hands of Malkovich and Dafoe, who are fantastic as they struggle for control on the set. Each is a terrific bundle of threats and desires, sinister secrets and theatrical tantrums. And Izzard nearly walks away with the film with his wonderful portrayal of a bad actor steered reluctantly into an authentic performance. The film isn't perfect, Merhige's direction is audacious and often brilliant, cleverly drawing on the film style of the period, yet the overall film feels uneven and badly edited. Some sequences struggle to find the balance between drama and black comedy, and some characters and situations are never clearly defined. But this is a small complaint for a film as energetically original and entertaining as this.

[15--themes, grisliness, language] 13.Oct.00
US release 29.Dec.00; UK release 2.Feb.01

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"Too often the open credits of a film are ignored or an audience simply will use this time for idle chat. During a recent screening at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival a blessed silence was present during the exceptional artwork accompanying the credits. The sepia tones set the mood and timeline for the film to follow. An audible round of applause greeted the Britcom Eddie Izzard's name. I am guilty. I was one of about 20 hooping and hollering for Eddie. The film traces in a loose docudrama format the making of Nosferatu, the first silent horror film about Dracula, by German director FW Murnau (Malkovich). The director, in his quest for realism it seems, has hired what may be an actual vampire to play the lead in his film! Izzard's performance as a silent film hack, long on ego and short on talent, is notable and very funny. And it about time he had a film in which his talent for drama and comedy can be combined. But this film really belongs entirely to Defoe as Max Schreck who walks (or rather skulks) away with the entire film. His portrayal as a vampire turned actor is the highlight, and we follow his progress as he changes from merely a blood sucking creature of the night into a moody and demanding film actor making Nosferatu director Murnau's life a technical nightmare. The film is flawed but fun, and during the course of the film humor seeps into all corners as we watch the rag tag film crew in their efforts to follow Murnau's 'struggle to create art.' We note how the vampire, no matter how scary, has to endure the tedious process of filmmaking just like all the other actors." --Randy, Florida.

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2000 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall