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With: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Ronan Vibert
Written by: Steven Katz
Directed by: E. Elias Merhige
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality, drug content, violence and langauge
Running Time: 93
Date: 05/15/2000

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Long in the Tooth

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

F.W. Murnau is still considered one of the world's greatest filmmakers even though his final film was released 70 years ago. He garners respect from highbrow film scholars for his lofty films like The Last Laugh (1925) and Faust (1926) and praise for his masterpiece Sunrise (1927). But his largest group of admirers, no doubt, comes from the one film that the scholars scowl at, the vampire film Nosferatu (1922).

The new fiction film Shadow of the Vampire shows us Murnau (played by John Malkovich) in his prime during the making of Nosferatu. The catch here is that the actor who plays the vampire in the movie, Max Schreck (played by Willem Dafoe), is a real vampire.

Shadow of the Vampire is a great idea that could have gone horribly wrong. A lesser director would have turned it into either a straight comedy or a straight horror film. But writer Steven Katz, author of an early draft of Interview with the Vampire (1994), and director E. Elias Merhige (Begotten) give it just the right touch, a bio-pic with brush-strokes of horror and the whole package planted firmly tongue-in-cheek. Nonetheless, Shadow of the Vampire painstakingly re-creates many of Murnau's shots--almost to the point of a strange fixation.

After a stunningly lovely and haunting credit sequence, we're treated to Murnau in action, rushing through a shot before loading everything on a train destined for a gloomy remote castle, where the crew will meet Schreck. Murnau comes across as a manic, egotistical artist, perfectly aware of his own greatness (as well he should be). Schreck continually threatens the production by sucking the blood out of Murnau's crew. When Murnau confronts him, screaming "I will finish my picture," Schreck sneers, "It's hardly your picture anymore." The two form a perfect macabre rivalry, along the lines of Batman and the Joker. It helps that both Malkovich and Dafoe are in top form.

Weird little cinema in-jokes that work both in the context of the film and on a more thoughtful level adorn Shadow of the Vampire. Murnau's temperamental star Greta (Catherine McCormack) gripes about how she's missing the theater season. She says the theater gives her life, while the cinema takes it away... implying that the camera itself is a vampire. Later, Schreck plays a shadow-puppet show while standing in front of an old-fashioned projector and hand-cranking it himself. Likewise, director Merhige deliberately "closes" his movie up, filming on claustrophobic sets, in direct opposition to Murnau's open-air realism on Nosferatu.

Some complaints I've heard argue that the film is choppy and full of holes (for example, Eddie Izzard, playing an actor on the film, disappears about two-thirds in with no explanation). Indeed, the length of the film, 89 minutes, indicates that it was chopped at the last minute to accommodate nervous backers. Fortunately, the film is so dreamy and surreal that all of this only accentuates its creepy atmosphere.

Ultimately, Shadow of the Vampire is more a gift for film buffs than casual moviegoers. (Even vampire vans may be slightly disappointed.) Those who appreciated Ed Wood (1994) and Gods and Monsters (1998), two similar, and excellent, films about making monster movies, should find it memorable.

This article also appeared in the The San Francisco Examiner.

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