Of course, none of this is true. Schreck was a bankable artiste, and had a long career after Nosferatu. (He and Murnau even collaborated again in 1924.)
But that’s part of Shadow of the Vampire’s gimmick. By turning a horror movie shoot into a horror movie in itself, it also transmutes into a sharp commentary. In its brief 92 minutes, it examines just how far a filmmaker will go to see their vision through, how much an actor can get away with when they’re the star, and generally how much behind-the-scenes behavior can be excused when the final work of art turns out to be a masterpiece.
But while it ponders plenty, the movie’s nevertheless undemanding — think Day for Night (1973) with Gothic contortions — and can be enjoyed without having much knowledge of Nosferatu in the first place. It’s probably even more fun that way: when the ability to decipher what’s based on truth and what’s shaded in twisted fiction is minimal, Shadow of the Vampire becomes increasingly nerve-wracking — and funny.
Set in remote Czechoslovakia circa 1921, the movie circles around the torrid production of Nosferatu, on which director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is prone to temper tantrums and on which suspicions that leading actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) might be a bloodsucker reign.
With scenes interspersed with spotlessly reenacted sequences from the original Nosferatu, one of the reasons Shadow of the Vampire is so fun is because it is so immersive. In addition to authentically feeling transported to this remote location where sacrificing your life for your art is a pretty big possibility, we’re also seduced by the silent movie era as a whole — how romantic its images were, and how visionary so many of its filmmakers were.
Director E. Elias Merhige painstakingly evokes the ultra-specific setting with gorgeous, chiaroscuro-heavy accuracy, and screenwriter Steven Katz captures the situation with just enough humor to remind us that, however tumultuous the focal production was, what happened during it is still absurd. (Among the movie’s best moments is when Schreck, supposedly in character, bites off the head of a woodland creature without so much as blinking.)
The leading actors, Malkovich and Dafoe, channel the feature’s unusual brand of black comedy in their performances, too. Malkovich, bespectacled and heavily accented, is a cliché of the high maintenance artist who puts his desires over everyone else’s. (Though this is a stretch — the real Murnau was actually considerate and sensitive.) Dafoe, the best thing about the film, is just broad enough to make us question if he actually is a vampire or if he’s an actor trying really hard to appear to be one off-camera. (The answer, though, perhaps doesn’t matter: he’s eternally terrifying.)
Fittingly, Shadow of the Vampire, like the movie on which it’s based, is haunting — though the type of psychological lingering differs. Whereas Nosferatu had the effect of a nightmare never to be forgotten, Shadow of the Vampire comes across as a bizarre fever dream you can’t quite figure out. It’s batshit, and yet it still strikes a chord thanks to its assembly line of enigmas. If only more horror movies came out with more faux “making of” accounts like this one — then the fear’d never stop. B+
E. Elias Merhige
John Aden Gillet
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
Shadow of the Vampire October 13, 2017
ccording to the metafictional horror comedy Shadow of the Vampire (2000), the reason F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) is so convincing is because its famous eponymous vampire was played by an actual one. In the reimagining, Max Schreck, the German character actor who played the fiendish Count Orlok in the original silent classic, really feasted on necks and really looked like a bloodthirsty naked mole rat without makeup.