Friday, June 27, 2014

Shadow of the Vampire: Immortal Undead

Immortal Undead
by Rusty White
reviewed: 2001-01-27
Rating: 3&1/2 STARS
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes
Length: 1 hour 32 minutes
Rated: R

In 1969, I saw F.W. Murnau's silent film masterpiece "Nosferatu" in the basement of the main library in Memphis. The movie ended around 10 PM. I believe I set a world record running the 5 dark city blocks to the safety of my home. This was one 11 year old that the boogie man was not going to get. "Nosferatu" is one of the best vampire movies ever made. It is hard to imagine anyone who has seen it disagreeing with that claim. E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire" builds on the clever premise that Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), the actor who played Count Orlock in "Nosferatu" was in fact a real vampire. The only one aware of this is director Murnau (John Malkovich). Murnau has struck a deal with the devil in order to direct an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Merhige's film is a smart, funny and insightful look into the world of filmmaking.

If you are looking for a scary movie "Shadow of the Vampire" is not for you, however, if you are a horror movie fan familiar with "Nosferatu" and the mysterious Max Schreck, then this is your cup of tea. That is not to say that those unfamiliar with this movie's origins will be disappointed. My date as ignorant of film's history as a nun is to the ways of carnal love and she loved "Shadow of the Vampire."

"Shadow of the Vampire" draws some interesting analogies between the undead and the artist. Malkovich portrays Murnau as a genius who seeks immortality through celluloid. In one scene, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack), the leading lady of "Nosferatu" argues that she doesn't want to go on location because the theater season in Berlin is about to start. Malkovich responds by stroking her ego. This role will push her talents and make her a star. If she finishes the film she will make sacrifices for her art which will place her above all other actresses. It is Malkovich who is willing to sacrifice all for his art, even if his actions endanger others. No one else could have played this part. Malkovich's Machiavellian Murnau is a wonder to behold as he directs his movie. I especially enjoyed, as he directed Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard) and Count Orlock during the dinner scene. As Gustav slowly cuts through a loaf of bread, Murnau suddenly yells, causing Gustav to cut his finger. The sight of blood sends Orlock into a vampiric frenzy. One must make sacrifices for their art. The movie trailer reveals the scene in which Murnau berates Orlock for attacking his cameraman. "Couldn't you have taken the script girl instead?" Murnau asks.

Willem Dafoe is barely recognizable under the realistic "Max Schreck/Count Orlock" makeup. Writer Steven Katz has created a truly memorable and sympathetic vampire. Max Schreck means "Great Terror" in German. While he evokes great terror on the cast and crew of "Nosferatu," Dafoe's Schreck is a pathetic and damned being who seems to enjoy this rare interaction with living beings. The loneliness of eternal life, shunned by the living has never been portrayed better. There is a wonderful scene between Dafoe, producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier) and screenwriter Henrick Galeen (Aden Gillet) in which the two drunken filmmakers ask Schreck what he though about Stoker's novel Dracula. Dafoe responds with a wonderful monologue which captures perfectly his characters isolation. I won't ruin it for you by describing it further.

I can't act my way out of a paper bag, but I can imagine what it must be like for trained actors to work with such a wonderful script. The cast is uniformly excellent. Eddie Izzard brings a subdued comic tone to his role of German actor Gustav von Wangenheim. Malkovich tells his cast and crew, that Max Schreck is a method actor who will only appear to them in full makeup and in character. The scene in which Izzard's character first meets the Count is hilarious. Izzard captures the apprehension and terror that all horror movie fans know as he waits for that unexpected bump in the night. I'd like to see more of Izzard on the big screen.

Udo Kier has a nice turn as the film's producer. Kier portrayed Dracula in the infamous "Andy Warhol's Dracula." It was nice to see Kier in a role which didn't play on his reputation for appearing as a kinky pervert.

My only complaint was Cary Elwes' horrible accent. I enjoy him as an actor, but his accent bothered me. I wasn't as bad a Kevin Kostner's English accent in "Robin Hood" but then few things are.

"Shadow of the Vampire" takes up many familiar themes and reexamines them with a fresh twist. The duality of the Murnau/Schreck characters could be the subject of a good post movie bull session with other movie buffs. She this one with a fellow movie fan, but "Shadow of the Vampire" should be enjoyed by all.

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