Retro Review: Shadow of the Vampire

The year was 1921 and a genius director was sculpting the most horrific movie ever conceived. Little did the director know that he would in fact have to sell every ounce of his humanity to create his infamous masterpiece. So tells the story of the ultra-classic German silent film, “Nosferatu”.

The film Nosferatu to this day is a landmark achievement in cinematic history. Why you might ask is a tiny little silent film so important? Well for one thing it pre-dates Bela Lugosi’s Dracula by ten years. It delivered the first real telling of a “vampire” story on the silver screen and if you have only seen just a little of it you know how much of an impact its star Max Schreck must have left on movie audiences.

In the new film, “Shadow of the Vampire” we are asked why there is such a mystery surrounding this film and what did it take to actually make the film. As the film opens we are introduced to the mad methodical genius of Nosferatu’s director Fredrik W. Murnau (John Malkovich) who has just been heavily disappointed by the rejection of Bram Stoker’s widow to film an adaptation of the novel “Dracula”. He explains to his producer, Albin Grau (Udo Kier), that we will just change some of the key names and deliver our own vampire masterpiece.

As the production begins the film crew departs for a suburban inn tucked into Eastern Europe. Murnau is fluttered with questions as to why they haven’t met the star of the film. Who will play their vampire? Murnau explains that their star is a method actor who has to remain in costume, makeup and will embody the scope of the film’s atmosphere at all times. He continues to explain that their vampire is a perfectionist and that the crew must actually go to him. Unbeknownst to the crew, Murnau has made a deal with a devil to complete his insane but masterful vision. The deal is struck with a local derelict named Max Shreck (Willem Dafoe), who in fact is a real vampire who has an appetite for youthful specimens. As the production absorbs their vampire into their mix, Murnau begins to see what kind of demon he has unleashed on his unsuspecting crew.

Shadow of the Vampire hovers on genius for 90% of the film. If you are a film historian or major buff then this movie will ooze magic for you. I mean you actually feel like you have been transported into their world. As the regular style of film crops and fades into the standard style of silent films we are engulfed into the magic that the mad director was trying to capture. It’s amazing how such a grainy and subtle picture can evict so much passion.

Placing the mood aside you know that the spirit and success of this film has a lot to do with the invigorating performances of Dafoe and Malkovich. You never know that Dafoe is actually Dafoe because of the amazing makeup applied to make him look like he was actually torn from the Nosferatu film.

His performance maybe over the top but it is so brilliantly encased in what we remember of Schreck in the original project. Dafoe does deserve an Oscar for this brilliance. As for Malkovich we really never see the brilliance of the Murnau part until the third act where we begin to see Murnau unravel.

As I watched “Shadow” I was reminded a lot of one of my favorite directors. The director I mean is Tim Burton. What could he have done with this little film. He did such a brilliant job with “Ed Wood” and “Sleepy Hollow” it would have been very interesting to see his magic spin this yarn.

Talking about Tim Burton brings me to my only real problem with this film. The director is a novice and in some circumstances I could see his small amount of experience carry through.

There were some scenes where the director tried to hard to emulate the film, Nosferatu. I mean with actors having those over the top thick German accents, then lacing it with period music and then coupling it with a grainy film sequence you can get a little lost.

I guess for me some of the circumstances didn’t really allow me to use my imagination and because of that I felt a little pushed. What made those grainy poorly cut films of yesteryear so precious was how much they did leave to our imagination.

If you boil down the story of this film you have a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire. Is the director here trying to uncover the mystery or create a new one? Is he trying to make us say, “Hmmm, could Max Shreck have been a vampire?” or is he trying to state, “There is no mystery here. He was a vampire and that’s why he was so weird.” The conflicting mysteries did leave me scratching my head. Does it leave you scratching yours?

To sum this film up. It’s music, lighting, acting, camera cropping and atmosphere is pure genius. But what mystery are we really trying to address?

4 out of 5

So Says the Soothsayer.

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