Shadow of the Vampire is a provocative idea squandered. It asks one of those irresistible what-if questions: What if the mysterious actor Max Schreck, known today solely for his title role in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire masterpiece Nosferatu, was a real vampire? Director E. Elias Merhige (who made the unbearably pretentious Begotten) and screenwriter Steven Katz run with the notion that not much is known about Schreck, so — who knows, maybe he was a vampire. Well, not much is known about him, but that doesn’t mean nothing is known about him. A bit of history; this won’t take long.
Film scholars usually describe Schreck as a “versatile” actor. He did a lot of movies and even more work on the stage. Nosferatu was neither his first film nor his last; he even worked again with Murnau, in the 1924 comedy The Finances of the Grand Duke. He died in 1936 (outliving Murnau by five years), not at the end of a stake or seared by sunlight, but of a mundane heart attack. End of history lesson; now let’s concentrate on why Shadow of the Vampire is a failure.
Even if we knew the above facts, why wouldn’t we be inclined to let talented filmmakers have fun with the conceit of Schreck as an actual vampire lurking in the shadows of Murnau’s set? Well, the filmmakers aren’t talented — the pace is leaden, the actors aside from the two scenery-chewing leads are neglected, the photography (by Lou Bogue) employs some of the most punishingly, pointlessly dark lighting I’ve ever not seen, the script is flat and obvious — and they’re not having fun. They have one idea — that Murnau the film-pioneer taskmaster was every bit as much a bloodsucker as his undead protagonist — and it’s a tired one.
Murnau (played by John Malkovich as the sort of irritable, pompous artiste you want to kick in the pants) tells his wary cast and crew that his star is a Method actor, “a student of Stanislavsky” who lives his roles. But Schreck (Willem Dafoe), we’re given to understand, is in reality a vampire Murnau found somewhere and wants to capture on film “for posterity and science.” Uh, I thought vampires don’t show up in photographs (and on celluloid), but never mind.
Schreck creeps around, draining the film’s first cinematographer, so that Murnau has to go and find a replacement, Fritz Arno Wagner (Cary Elwes), a goofy frat-boy type who doesn’t seem capable of devising some of horror cinema’s most lasting images. There’s tension on the set. Schreck freaks everyone out. The film’s producer (Udo Kier, stranded with little to do besides worrying) worries. The leading lady (Catherine McCormack) is being groomed for Schreck’s fangs — his payment for acting in Murnau’s shadowplay. The leading man (Eddie Izzard) is scared of Schreck. Murnau keeps cranking the camera. The movie goes on like this, passionlessly, without a fraction of the power of its source.
Willem Dafoe could have saved this affair single-handedly, and he has his game face on and his vamp fangs in, but Katz’s shallow script gives him nothing to work with. Eventually, his stylized performance moves into hamming it up for its own sake, and never comes back. The role is tricky — he’s playing a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire — and maybe that’s too many plates for even this gifted veteran to spin at once. A little ambiguity — perhaps the suggestion that Schreck isn’t a vampire, but that the cast and crew, with Murnau’s eager encouragement, come to believe he is — would have helped Dafoe and the movie.
But that’s not what we get. Shadow of the Vampire is a heavy-handed art-film semi-comedy about the director as monster, complete with heady jazz about how the camera takes your essence and immortalizes you at the same time, just like, you know, a vampire. It’s also unquestionably mean-spirited. It communicates no particular love for Nosferatu or the people who made it; it’s a hipster ride on the coattails of greatness. (Why isn’t this a movie about the making of Friday the 13th and how Jason was a real slasher? Answer: because there’s no art-house credibility in that.) At times it’s like Ed Wood without affection — and a lot of the footage recreated from Murnau’s classic is made to look as dorky as an Ed Wood film!
I think the film’s hip disrespect for real figures in film history — Murnau as a callous control freak who cranks the camera while people die in front of him? — is what annoys me about the factually inaccurate premise. Murnau’s Nosferatu was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and he had to change all the character names to avoid being sued by Stoker’s widow. The producers of Shadow of the Vampire had better hope any descendants of the Murnau or Schreck families (if there are any) aren’t as litigious as Stoker’s wife was. At best, this is a dawdling, toothless riff on a vastly superior film. At worst, it’s character assassination.