Shadow of the Vampire [DVD]
Screenplay : Steven Katz
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : John Malkovich (F.W. Murnau), Willem Dafoe (Max Schrek), Udo Kier (Albin Grau), Cary Elwes (Fritz Arno Wagner), Catherine McCormack (Greta Schrsder), Eddie Izzard (Gustav von Wangenheim), Aden Gillett (Henrick Galeen)
Shadow of the Vampire is a darkly humorous reimagination of what went on behind the lights and cameras during the filming of F.W. Murnau's legendary silent horror film, Nosferatu, which was made in 1922 during the height of German expressionism. Murnau's film was almost lost because it was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Stoker's widow at one point sued to have all the prints destroyed.
In screenwriter Steven Katz's fantastically fictional version of the story, Murnau did much more than just steal Stoker's storyline. As played by John Malkovich, Murnau is a driven, single-minded director who is willing to do anything for his "art." He stalks up and down the sets, yelling at crew members when they do not please him, passionately directing his actors in their roles, and always staring intently as the scene unfolds before him, the hand-crank cameras clicking away. Murnau knows that his horror film has to be a masterpiece, something vital and original, something that will live up to its subtitle, A Symphony of Horror. So, to fill the lead role of the vampire, Count Orlock, he enlists the services of a real vampire.
When filming is finished in Berlin, the production moves to a remote area of Czechoslovakia, where the actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) awaits. Murnau tells his crew that Schreck is a peculiar actor whose methods are quite unorthodox. He informs them that he will be staying in character at all times, even when the cameras are not rolling. Thus, he will never take off his make-up, and he wishes to be referred to only as Count Orlock. Of course, Schreck can't take off his make-up because the pointed ears, rat-like fangs, and extended finger claws are not make-up--they're real.
Orlock has agreed to work with Murnau on the condition that Murnau allow him to feed on the blood of the leading lady, Greta Schrsder (Catherine McCormack). But, as it turns out, Schreck is an impatient vampire who gives into his blood cravings easily, and some of the film's most wickedly funny scenes involve Murnau angrily chastising his leading man for feeding off his crew, especially his cinematographer. "I need a cinematographer!" Murnau screams. (And I know that Katz had a good laugh in front of his word processor when he wrote Schreck's follow-up line: "What about the writer? You don't need a writer.")
Of course, Shadow of the Vampire is fiction from start to finish. Although all the characters bear the real names of people who were involved in the film, they are fictional creations who have no relation to their historical counterparts. Katz and director E. Elias Merhige have no real interest in the history of the making of Nosferatu or the people involved. Rather, the historical mystery and aura surrounding the film (very little is known about Schreck) makes it an easy target for reimagining a scenario about the price of making one's art, which in this case turns out to be death for almost everyone involved. (Some critics and film purists have expressed dismay that legendary artists of the silent screen era can be reappropriated in this way, and in many ways theirs is a valid argument that bears consideration. However, I would counter that we never really know artists; we only know their myths, and myths are inherently fictional.)
Although the film is shot in moody low contrast, very much duplicating the dark, shadowy feel of Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire is a black comedy through and through. There are moments of abject horror, yes, and it is quite literally a vampire movie. But, at the same time, the whole premise is really nothing more than a bad joke, a long play on a clever "what if ..." scenario. Critics today still write with feverish pitch about the effectiveness of Schreck's portrayal of Nosferatu--how his creepy inhumanity strips the character of the Romantic associations envisioned by Stoker and embodied by Bela Lugosi and turns him into a character of true evil. So, Shadow of the Vampire takes the next logical step, and asks, What if the reason Schreck was so good was because he was simply playing himself?
Both Malkovich and Dafoe give excellent performances that mesh well with the film's slightly over-the-top feel. Malkovich rants and raves, but always maintains the artist's forced dignity. Dafoe is simply uncanny as Schreck--with some make-up to extend his nose and emphasize the sunken nature of his eyes, the resemblance is extraordinary. The physical resemblance is transcended, though, by Dafoe's delicious scenery chewing. Hissing and slurping his way through the film, he is a daunting presence who surprises and unsettles you by both his grotesquerie and his wicked sense of humor. It was also gratifying to see Udo Kier, a veteran of numerous Eurotrash horror movies like Mark of the Devil (1971) and Paul Morrissey's Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) playing Albin Grau, the film's producer and art director.
However, for all the humor and campy shivers induced by Shadow of the Vampire, there is a disturbing undercurrent that only really comes to the surface near the end. This is the fact that, when others in the production learn that Schreck is really a vampire, they go along with it. While it at first seems that Murnau is simply an aberration, a filmmaker with no moral compass who believes his art is worth the sacrificing of human lives, it turns out that he is in like company. Grau and the cinematographer, Fritz Arno Wagner (Cary Elwes), are only too compliant in helping Murnau shoot Greta up with morphine so she will be more compliant when Shreck goes after her neck.
The black comedy of the early portions of the film give way to the disturbing final sequence that involves the filming of Nosferatu's last night with the heroine, in which she tricks him by allowing her to suck her blood, but only to keep him out until daybreak. Merhige builds the tension and rhythm of this sequence until it becomes nearly unbearable, and then he closes the film with a close-up of Murnau and a final line that guarantees that, even if you keep in mind the fictional nature of the film, you will never be able to watch Nosferatu in the same way again.
|Shadow of the Vampire DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
DTS 5.1 Surround
|Languages||English (DD 5.1, DTS 5.1)|
French (DD 5.1)
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director E. Elias Merhige|
Interview with actor Willem Dafoe
Interview with producer Nicolas Cage
Interview with director E. Elias Merhige
Make-up photo montage
Production scrapbook photo montage
Original theatrical trailers for Shadow of the Vampire and Begotten
Cast and filmmaker biographies
|Shadow of the Vampire, presented in anamorphic widescreen in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, looks gorgeous. Lou Bogue's dark, foreboding cinematography in ancient castles and dank rooms is given its due, with solid, inky blacks and excellent shadow detail throughout. A great example is the scene in which Max Schreck first appears, literally materializing out of the shadows of a dark tunnel. Most of the color palette is subdued, comprised mostly of earth tones and various shades of blackness. However, there are moments of vivid color--the red bedspread in a hotel, the vibrant green trees of a forest on either side of a train ride--that are beautiful and well-saturated without any bleeding.|
|Universal has included both Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and DTS 5.1 surround soundtracks, both of which are excellent. While not particularly showy soundtracks, both the Dolby Digital and the DTS excel in subtle efficiency, using limited directional effects and imaging to invoke a creepy atmosphere or the clanging hustle and bustle of a silent movie set. Dan Jones' elegant musical score also sounds superb throughout.|
| Director E. Elias Merhige contributes an interesting screen-specific audio commentary that starts off a little slowly and somewhat ponderously, but picks up steam as the movie progresses. Although Merhige takes a little while to get into the flow of the commentary, once he does, he has a great deal of insight to offer. His style is fairly informal, but his discussion is punctuated with detailed knowledge of his subject that reinforces just how serious he was in making the film. |
In addition to the commentary, the disc also includes an interview with Merhige, as well as interviews with star Willem Dafoe and producer Nicolas Cage. Each interview runs about seven to eight minutes and is divided up by topics, such as working with John Malkovich or battling over what the title of the film would be (no one wanted to use "Vampire" in the title because it would sound too much like a traditional horror film).
The disc also include a brief, seven-minute making-of featurette that includes some brief interviews with cast and crew and behind-the-scenes footage. There are also two photo gallery montages. The first, which runs just over a minute, shows the process by which Willem Dafoe was transformed with make-up into Max Schreck (this is an area that could have really benefited from more information). The second, which is about three and a half minutes long, is filled with various production stills and behind-the-scenes photos.
The original theatrical trailer is included in full-frame, as is a full-frame trailer for Merhige's first film, 1991's Begotten, a little-seen, disturbing bit of religious avant-garde that impressed Nicolas Cage enough to make him want to work with Merhige. The trailer is eerily effective, combining abstract still images from the film with praising quotes from writers and critics that run the gamut from Richard Corliss of Time to Amos Vogel and Susan Sontag; the only problem is the ridiculous-sounding voice-over reading the quotes. The disc is rounded out with a good set of production notes and a few cast and filmmaker biographies.
©2001 James Kendrick