Tod Browning’s queasy casting of circus pinheads and other flesh and blood curiosities alongside actors in 1932’s Freaks has become legendary. What we don’t know, says the playful premise of Shadow of the Vampire, is that Browning wasn’t the first to heighten horror with such audacious naturalism. Maybe German director F.W. Murnau beat him to the punch in 1921 with a Faustian coup in which he persuaded a real-life vampire to star in Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens. Just maybe that creepy silent classic about dread and the price of true love was cinema’s consummate embrace of method acting and first art-house snuff film.
Writer Steven Katz’s interest in Nosferatu nearly 10 years ago lead to his discovery of photos in which Murnau and his crew wore laboratory coats and goggles (a precaution against a toxic film process) while shooting their unauthorized version of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Katz thought Murnau appeared to be shooting a scientific project or documentary, and developed his script as a flash point of art, obsession and the macabre. Applying delirious poetic license to the obscure past of Max Schreck, the actor who played Nosferatu’s grotesque Count Orlock, Katz concocted a tale in Shadow of the Vampire that links bloodsucking to filmmaking, and ponders the dark side of unchecked genius, promise of immortality and contractual perks of one very famished, demanding movie star.
The film is a fascinating, comic fantasy in which diverse elements unfortunately work against each other. Its main hook is obvious early, so there’s little suspense. It teases the intellect more than gnaws on emotion, so it is never scary. It wanders from tone to tone with laughs, melodrama and horror coagulating on contact rather than intermingling into something more potent. Also, the fine performances are diluted by such camp as Schreck snatching a bat from the air and chasing its blood with a shot of schnapps.
John Malkovich stars as the visionary Murnau, an art historian who experimented with the language of film (his Sunrise is a true masterpiece). Here he is obsessed with making Nosferatu (roughly translated as “plague carrier") the most realistic vampire movie ever. He completes shooting in Berlin and moves the production to an island where the cast meets Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), their rodent-faced, hunched, bald and ferret-eyed Prince of Darkness whose claw-like hands sprout talons.
Murnau warns his troupe that Max will be always in character and costume, and photographed only at night. After the cinematographer falls ill and Murnau returns from the mainland with a replacement (a dashing Carl Elwes), fear spreads that Max may be something much more sinister than just an ardent student of Stanislavsky. Murnau and Max then engage in a battle of wills and wit that makes today’s troubled sets seem like dream shoots.
Malkovich as Murnau is ego incarnate (“If it’s not in the frame it does not exist,” he says) and credibly consumed by perfection. Dafoe won a Golden Globe nomination for his role as a chalk-colored ghoul who tells Murnau “You and I are the same” and then pouts when his director—a real stickler for realism—refuses to let him use makeup. Eddie Izzard, as Nosferatu’s leading man, is excellent as a bad actor and Catherine McCormack plays a morphine-addicted starlet.
Shadow of the Vampire is a virtual treasure chest for film buffs. Director E. Elias Merhige (known for 1991’s Begotten and Marilyn Manson videos) seamlessly combines re-enactments of Nosferatu with real clips, and moves lucidly between color and black-and-white footage. He brings the world of hand-cranked cameras, in which directors narrate the action for their actors and telegraph their emotions, to vibrant life.
At one point Schreck snarls to Murnau, “I don’t think we need the writer any longer." “I’m loath to admit it myself," replies Murnau, “but the writer is necessary." It’s a perfect moment in an imperfect picture in which catering is the last of at least one cast member’s concerns.