Real world meets the reel
Merhige’s vampire film is a dark ode to the filmmaker’s obsession
In the early days of silent film, as film history has it, famed German director F. W. Murnau approached Bram Stoker’s widow in order to procure the rights to film the late author’s classic novel of horror, Dracula. For whatever reason, he was denied. Undeterred, Murnau simply changed Dracula’s name to Orlock and proceeded with his project.
On the positive side, what he created has stood solidly over the past 80 years as perhaps the truest adaptation of Stoker’s novel. On the negative side, Murnau’s little circumvention truly chapped the Widow Stoker’s hide—she sued, won, and compelled the courts to order all copies of the film seized and destroyed.
For years, Nosferatu (as Murnau renamed the piece) was considered a “lost” film—that is, until copies began to resurface after the widow’s death. These discoveries would document the only known images of the enigmatic German actor Max Schreck ("fear” in German, for what it’s worth). As the gaunt, rodent-like Count Orlock, Schreck created an iconic image of the vampire as grotesquerie, an image never surpassed but frequently paid homage to by such actors as Reggie Nalder (Salem’s Lot), Klaus Kinski (in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake), and now by Willem Dafoe in The Shadow of the Vampire.
Here we have director E. Elias Merhige (whose only prior piece of film is the severely whacked-out cult item, Begotten) delivering with what is essentially a one-trick-pony express—the ever-popular movie within a movie gambit. Primarily, Merhige follows the behind-the-camera aspects of the making of Murnau’s Nosferatu, portraying the director as a man so obsessed with authenticity that he casts a true vampire as the lead in his new horror film—committing to a contract in blood on which he signs off with the life of his lead actress.
Murnau (as portrayed by the ever-twitching John Malkovich) is the template for the soon-to-be-clichéd—we’re talking 1921 here, OK?—film character of obsessed director, that creative type who will not only drag his cast and crew into the nether regions on a chance to catch a perhaps perfect image, but will also play a game of liar’s dice with their souls for a roll at that elusive money shot. Malkovich’s Murnau is a man so consumed by his own consummate vision of art that he becomes more of a monster than the ostensible monster, a non-too-subtle metaphor of filmmaker as emotional bloodsucker. Along the way we are treated to snippets of a living dead-on recreation of Murnau’s movie itself, a seamless meld of real world meets the reel.
The irony here is that while the character of Count Orlock is denied close-ups due to “improprieties” with cast and crew—Murnau’s angry reaction to finding his people sucked dry and discarded like empty bottles of Evian—Schreck’s undead Count holds as one of the defining images of silent film. Likewise, Dafoe more than earns his Oscar nomination as the undead diva (vampires are by nature androgynous). Malkovich, like Murnau within this context, is irrelevant here. Dafoe justly owns this show.
The key question here is, exactly what audience is this movie geared toward? While overtly a bloody valentine (well, not that bloody) to the horror buff, The Shadow of the Vampire would actually seem to play better for those folks who take a more casual approach to horror, in that while the in-jokes call for a fairly good working knowledge of the original film and its cluttered mythos, that background also works against the film as a whole. It’s hard to buy into the internal logic of the film if you’re anal enough to know that Schreck went on to appear as a character actor in at least 20 other films and that all of the outdoor scenes in Nosferatu involving the “vampire” obviously utilized day-for-night photography (remember, class: vampire + sunlight = mess).
On the other hand, Merhige has created a work with a keen eye for the era and a droll appreciation for the history of the original film, if not film itself. The result is one giddy, dark-humored case of filmmakers looking at themselves in the mirror. Whether they truly cast a reflection—unlike the vampire, as legend ponders—is your own call.