Shadow of the Vampire

Updated February 11, 2017 | Infoplease Staff
Director:E. Elias Merhige
Writer:Steven Katz
Lions Gate Films; R; 94 minutes
Cast:John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier

When the film's a one-trick-pony you need a real workhorse. Take the upcoming genre-mess, The Body, for example. In it the Vatican sends Antonio Banderas (as an ex-soldier priest) to investigate what appears to be Jesus Christ's skeleton?possible evidence that he was an ordinary man, a revelation that might shake the very foundations of Christianity. The film trips and stumbles as it tries to run with a provocative concept. Its central conceit only succeeds in generating controversial press. Shadow of the Vampire is another movie based on a single idea, but director E. Elias Merhige teams up with Willem Dafoe and together they elevate a left-field plot device into an Ed Wood-type success.

The idea is this: imagine if a real vampire had starred in F.W. Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu. The notion is esoteric to those who haven't seen the original, but to the many initiated, it is a stroke of brilliance. Max Schreck, Nosferatu's infamous bloodsucker, possessed an incredibly spooky, haunted face. His on-screen presence was downright uncanny, and it did much to elevate the German Expressionist film into critics' circles and horror fans' halls of fame.

As Schreck, Willem Dafoe brings the proper balance of eeriness and tongue-in-cheekiness to Shadow of the Vampire. The role has him haggling with director Murnau (John Malkovich) about which cast members he may vampirize before filming ends, unconcerned with petty human worries. Schreck is so devoted to his part that he is always acting like a vampire, Murnau explains to the cast as the bodies mount. The obsessed director keeps Schreck's identity secret and has plenty of time to wax poetic with the idea of film as an immortalizing art form. Immortal in the vampiric sense. The director has even promised the drugged veins of lead actress Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack) to Schreck, all in the name of art.

That the movie has serious pretensions makes it somehow even more enjoyable. One caveat: knowledge of Nosferatu is a prerequisite. Shadow of the Vampire is a unique treatment that rubs a ludicrous theory until it sparkles with dark lustre.

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