The Horror Honeys: Vampire Month ~ METHOD, MADNESS AND MOVIEMAKING


A Sci-Fi Honey Vampire Month Review by Katie

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Nearly a century ago, German filmmaker F.W. Murnau gave creative birth to Nosferatu: an unauthorized film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that has since become the standard by which all other vampire movies are measured. It was so good, in fact, that lead actor Max Schreck (whose name is German for “terror,” of course), was rumored to be a real-life vampire. Schreck’s performance as Count Orlok, therefore, was not just an impressive feat of acting; it was the exploitation of a tragically immortal figure whose bloodlust was committed to celluloid for all of time. Writer Steven Katz took this Hollywood urban legend and fashioned it into Shadow of the Vampire, a fictionalized making-of Nosferatu that imagines the lore behind Schreck’s performance and Murnau’s complicity with the dark side in order to further his career. The resulting film, helmed by visual experimentalist E. Elias Merhige (Begotten), is an inspired and often darkly hilarious satire on the sacrifices an artist must make – in this case, literally – to achieve his or her creative vision.

In 1920s Germany, Murnau (John Malkovich) assembles a motley troop of writers, photographers, and performers to round out the production of his Nosferatu – titled as such because Stoker’s widow refused him the rights to adapt Dracula to screen. Their production takes them to a castle in Czechoslovakia where meticulously ‘Method’ actor Max Schreck is fully clad in Count Orlok costume and makeup to embody the role of a centuries-old vampire. Schreck’s fellow performers and members of the crew are spellbound by his performance and his painstaking dedication to his part, as he never breaks character – even when the cameras aren’t rolling. But what if Schreck wasn’t acting at all? What if he knew all too well the wretched plight of the immortal undead…?

Because we all know that vampires are terrible actors.
As a filmmaker, all Merhige really needed to do was establish this intriguing premise and let actors as gifted as the ones in Shadow of the Vampire have free reign over the material. Malkovich has a résumé that’s littered with over-the-top roles, and his exaggerated affectation is perfectly suited to rendering Murnau as an artist with grandiose cinematic ambitions. Set at the dawn of motion pictures, the Roaring Twenties is the perfect historical backdrop to the unrestrained melodrama imbued in everyone’s performance. Rounding out the cast are familiar faces and character actors such as Cary Elwes and Eddie Izzard; as well as Udo Kier, who is no stranger to the horror genre and has played the Count himself in a previous film. While they’d be deemed excessively theatrical in any other film, this cast is right at home in the world of Shadow of the Vampire – taking breaks between shooting up with opiates and dancing the Charleston to shoot some off-the-cuff scenes of silent horror.

You may die during this take, so make it count.
The real star of Shadow of the Vampire, however, is the spectacularly menacing Willem Dafoe, who delivers one of his finest performances as Schreck/Orlok. Often brooding and introspective but sometimes hysterically hammy, the film lumbers at a particularly drawn-out pace until Dafoe makes his first spine-chilling appearance near the 30-minute mark. From that moment on, he’s a delight to behold; whether he’s clicking his clawlike fingernails together, spouting melancholic soliloquies, or snatching live bats from the sky and feeding on their winged flesh, Dafoe spares no opportunity to embody this character with gusto. His efforts even yielded him an Academy Award nomination that year, a rare feat for any film or performance that centers on the subject of horror.

It might have won for Best Makeup, but this was Willem Dafoe's real face. 
While Shadow of the Vampire tells a singular story about the (possible) making of cinematic history in Nosferatu, Merhige’s film could also be interpreted as a meditation on the struggle to bring any creative project to fruition. Artists pay to achieve their vision not just financially, but also through their blood, sweat, and tears. Screenwriter Steven Katz imagines that Nosferatu was paid for quite literally with blood, and in lives sacrificed for the sake of their art. Malkovich as Murnau is the grand puppeteer over the fates of all involved, just as culpable in the bloodletting as any honest-to-goodness vampire. Indeed, a director’s demands on their performer are draining in the realm of art; as one actress in the film describes her disdain for a movie camera, “an audience gives me life… this thing only takes it from me.” To an artist devoted to their particular medium, even if your death is figurative rather than literal – is there really a difference?

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Four-and-a-half Method-acting vampires out of five.

Shadow of the Vampire is available via blu-ray/DVD

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