Directed by: E. Elias Merhige
Premise: Set during the making of 1922’s Nosferatu, filmmaker F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) hires Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) to play the vampire. Unknown to the rest of the crew, Schreck is in fact a real vampire who is preying on the cast.
What Works: Shadow of the Vampire is a speculative fiction that is fundamentally a horror story but one that lampoons filmmaking and has fun with the history of a legendary picture. The makers of Shadow of the Vampire clearly did their homework. The movie recreates the key visuals of 1922’s Nosferatu and it makes use of some of the behind-the-scenes stories. It’s rewarding viewing for those who have seen Nosferatu and are familiar with the background of its production but the movie plays well enough on its own that viewers who are new to the material will find it understandable and engaging. One of the underappreciated qualities of 1922’s Nosferatu is its humor and Shadow of the Vampire brings that forward. Its humor and its horror are tied together. This is not so much the story of a vampire as it is about a filmmaker driven by an obsession that is so overwhelming he is willing to sacrifice his cast and crew in pursuit of his artistic vision. The moviemakers play that for laughs at first but things turn grotesque and violent and the filmmaker and his star are revealed to be equally monstrous. Shadow of the Vampire features two exceptional performances starting with John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau. Malkovich conveys the singlemindedness of his fictionalized Murnau and his arrogance is cause for laughs but eventually terror especially in the film’s climax. Willem Dafoe is cast as Max Schreck, who in this film is a vampire pretending to be an actor pretending to be a vampire. Dafoe dials it up in a way that is frightening and funny. But Schreck is also fascinating because he is a creature of an older era on the cusp of new technological age for which cinema is the symbol. In this respect, Shadow of the Vampire goes beyond a high concept black comedy and is a story about the mythology of the old world and long-standing conceptions of evil running up against modern industrialized society. By the time the film is over, we are left to wonder which of these men is the real vampire.
What Doesn’t: Shadow of the Vampire is so focused on the relationship between Murnau and Schreck that it loses sight of some of the supporting characters. Albin Grau, who was the producer and art director on Nosferatu, had a fascinating background and Grau is played by Udo Kier who is an equally fascinating actor. Unfortunately, Grau is just imagined as a typical movie producer and Kier is not given enough to do. Catherine McCormack plays actress Greta Schröder. She’s also underutilized. Schröder is the bait Murnau uses to entice Schreck to cooperate and unfortunately Shadow of the Vampire uses the female character in basically the same way.
Disc extras: As of 2022, Shadow of the Vampire is not in print on disc nor is it available for streaming. Used copies can be found on the secondary market.
Bottom Line: Shadow of the Vampire is a fascinating riff on Nosferatu and a thoughtful take on horror stories and the pursuit of artistic vision. The movie can be viewed by anyone, regardless of their familiarity with Nosferatu, and the implications creeping in around the edges make Shadow of the Vampire very rewatchable.
Episode: #921 (October 9, 2022)