The vampire movie has been a staple of film since the beginning of the art-form, and stories of the cursed undead continue to enthrall people even today. The newest examination of the subject, “Shadow of the Vampire,” takes us back to the creation of one of the earliest and greatest vampire movies of all time, “Nosferatu,” with an eerie atmosphere and exceptional performances that make you remember why the vampire is such a fascinating subject.
“Shadow” follows the making of the silent film “Nosferatu” in the early 1920″s. (In this first film adaptation of Bram Stoker”s “Dracula,” all of the names had to be changed due to the fact that Stoker”s widow refused to sell the rights, so Count Dracula becomes Count Orlock.) In “Shadow,” when German director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) plans his film, he is so obsessed with perfection that he decides to use a real vampire to play an actor playing the vampire. Got that? As part of the bargain, Murnau tells Orlock (Willem Dafoe) that in return for pretending to be actor Max Schreck and starring in the film, he will get to feed on the leading lady at the end of the production.
At first, their tentative alliance seems feasible. However, Orlock, who has been in isolation for years, is overcome by his primal urges, and the cast and crew of the film begin to suffer as he gives in to his need for blood. Murnau soon realizes that he does not have as much control over the Count as he thought.
This portrayal of a vampire and both his physical and mental state is one of the most complex and realistic that I have seen. Instead of the more common depiction of vampires with enlarged canines and mostly human features, Orlock is much more primitive. Between his bat ears, rat-like front teeth, long, dark claws and hunched body, he seems more like a rodent than a man.
Dafoe gives Orlock real depth, and there are times where he is even a sympathetic character. As we see him looking longingly at a film clip of a sunny sky or speaking of his painful and forgotten past, we begin to really identify with him and his terrible situation. He is drawn beyond his will to carry out his actions and live his nightmarish existence, and his desperation is tangible. Dafoe is incredibly creepy, and it is easy to forget that he is just wearing make-up. The first time that he glides onscreen, he truly looks the part of a monster.
The humor in the film is dark and disturbing, but it is also highly enjoyable. During a private meeting between Orlock and Murnau, the director is trying to persuade the Count to control his appetite and refrain from destroying more crew members, and Orlock desperately mutters, “I do not think we need the writer” with a sheepish and hopeful grin on his face.
Murnau, always clad in a white lab coat, is portrayed more as a scientist than an artist. His obsession with producing a perfect record of events stretches to the point of madness, and Malkovich”s thousand-yard stare gives Murnau just the right mix of instability and genius. Unfortunately, this film is another example of Malkovich botching an accent. Usually, he does either no accent at all (e.g. his portrayal of Charles VII of France in “The Messenger”) or a completely over the top cartoon character (Teddy KGB in “Rounders”), but in “Shadow,” he never really decides what accent he is using.
The editing of the movie is a little jarring, and some bizarre, morphine laden interlude scenes seem thrown in and merely distract form the rest of the film. However, vivid imagery and amazing acting by Dafoe make the film intriguing and guarantee it a place of honor in vampire film history.