Shadow of the Vampire

"Someone get this scheisskopf off of me!"

What if F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu, actually hired a vampire to play the title character in his famous 1922 silent horror film? It’s a brilliant idea! Make a deal with the blood-sucker that if he cooperates with production, you’ll let him eat the lead actress. In return, you get to make the most realistic horror movie of all time. Rumors have been circulating for years that Murnau may have resorted to this, and the surrealistic, sometimes absurdist, always brilliant Shadow of the Vampire speculates on what production would have looked like were the rumors actually true.

John Malkovich, sporting a not-bad German accent and occasionally shouting “Ruhe, bitte!” plays Murnau as an ultimate film purist, a man who believes that verisimilitude is everything, and without it a movie is nothing. On the set, he is bossy and controlling; a pontificating idealist who likes to give his crew pep talks in the form of lectures on how their absolute dedication will make a new, amazing form of art.

He introduces the star of his movie, Max Schrek, as a method actor who has to be completely in character the entire time. Therefore, he tells his minions, he is spending his time in a cave somewhere getting familiar with his new persona, and when he appears on set, he will only be seen as Nosferatu the vampire. It doesn’t occur to anyone that Schrek, played by Willem Dafoe, may actually be a vampire until the director of photography is eaten.

Shadow of the Vampire is almost embarrassingly entertaining, developing as a thriller, a deadpan satire and an allegory. This isn’t a pointless “what if” movie; it poses real questions about art’s value and whether it justifies violence. Unlike the hammy, pretentious Quills, the film doesn’t pretend that it can answer these questions in under two hours. Asking is enough.

Adding to the experience is the fact that the material is played perfectly straight. The movie’s a satire, yes, but it has to be pieced together from what’s presented on screen and some idea of how Hollywood works. When the ravenously hungry vampire tells Murnau that “We don’t need the writer,” it’s only funny if you can piece together the double meaning behind the line. There’s no sense of anyone winking from outside the frame; no hint whatsoever that the film’s concept isn’t being taken 100% seriously. This doesn’t only make Shadow of the Vampire scary, it lends it a certain level of gravitas. The danger for these kinds of movies is wandering into pretentious, ponderous territory; Shadow of the Vampire deftly avoids this, beginning and ending as a cleverly serious, if bizarre, drama. The final shot is one of the year’s most stirring.

Willem Dafoe is justly receiving hosannas for his virtuoso performance as the vampire; his transformation from the villain in Speed 2: Cruise Control to Nosferatu is nothing short of incredible. He grabs your attention from the moment he walks on the screen and holds it until his inevitable death scene, never letting the concept become just a gimmick. But I think John Malkovich, as the obsessed auteur in question, deserves a share of the recognition as well. While the plot’s center is undoubtedly Dafoe, the human center rests solely on the shoulders of Malkovich who, as usual, comes through nicely. I’d also like to note that I didn’t think of Being John Malkovich once while watching this; last year’s brilliant comedy isn’t a curse for the actor after all.

Actually, Being John Malkovich and Shadow of the Vampire aren’t completely unrelated aside from the actor’s common presence; both films give insightful viewers something new, unusual and delightful.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

Snitch

Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

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Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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