Having a conversation with a friend, the topic drifted on its own to Shadow of the Vampire, a personal favorite and instant classic of vampire cinema. If you haven’t seen it already, then you really need to re-evaluate your life choices.
Once upon a time, F.W. Murnau wanted to make Dracula into a film, but didn’t feel like paying for the royalties, so he changed the names and made Nosferatu instead. The central premise here is that instead of Max Schreck, actor extraordinaire, Murnau found an actual vampire and convinced the cast and crew that he was a method actor. Hijinks ensue.
Bloody, bloody hijinks.
I could extol the virtues of this wonderful picture one by one, but we would literally be here all day. Night would fall, and the Undead would come rapping at your window, sorely disappointed that you haven’t seen Shadow of the Vampire yet. So instead, I’ll just hit the big points:
It’s so perfectly high concept: One of the most famous vampire movies ever made starred an actual vampire. The trailer makes it seem like the movie is a straight-up comedy. It’s not. It’s dark, off-kilter, strangely paced, and weird. It’s also fang-in-cheek about a creature of the night being sucked into showbiz. The fact that you haven’t seen it yet— if you actually haven’t— makes me re-think whether or not we can be friends.
Any conversation about SotV’s cast must begin with Willem DaFoe. (DaFOOOOOOOE) You’re looking at the first actor ever nominated for an Academy Award for playing a vampire. (The makeup for the film was also highly lauded, as DaFoe is both instantly recognizable, but still decidedly inhuman.) As ‘Max Schreck’— the vampire’s true name is never mentioned— he plays a figure who is at turns manic, playful, tragic, even senile. The vampire is so old he no longer remembers the face of the creature that made him. He could be thousands of years old. It’s a striking metaphor for old age, piled on top of all the other aspects that make up a riveting performance.
John Malkovich is fantastic as Murnau, bringing his usual massive intensity to the film auteur who gradually goes mad working on the picture. It’s a strange and beautiful thing to watch a character lose his mind, but not his composure. I doubt anyone besides Malkovich could have done it justice.
The supporting cast is likewise, well, perfect. Udo Kier plays the producer and Murnau’s right hand man. The fact that he’s not a vampire for once is entirely refreshing. Cary Elwes(!) makes a late arrival as the camera man brought in after the first one mysteriously dies. He’s entirely focused on the job, willing to terrorize innocent extras with gunplay, if it means he’ll get the shot he’s after.
Eddie Izzard plays the lead actor: It’s a lean meal for him, but he does the role justice. I’m sure Izzard could have done more with the part, but with Malkovich and DaFoe on board already, there wasn’t room for more insanity. Catherine McCormack, probably best known for her role in Braveheart, plays “the role of a lifetime” as Greta Schroeder. Every inch the diva— she’s unwittingly part of a grim pact between Murnau and Schreck.
Beyond just the story unfolding, Steven Katz’ screenplay thoughtfully examines what it would be like for such a creature to go on, seemingly forever. The scene where both ‘actor’ and crew discuss Dracula and other supernatural things is one of the most important in the film. When asked what he thought of the book, Schreck surprises them that it “made me sad.” Beyond any simple horror story, Schreck relates to the Count’s plight in passing for human, when he hasn’t been one for centuries. The assembled crew listen to this thoughtfully, before Max snatches a bat out of the air, rips its head off and drains it dry. Their only response? “What an actor.”
Most importantly, the movie showcases that everyone involved brought their A-Game. They had fun making it, even when they were dropping like flies (on camera).
You can decide to skip this dark delight, if you want to have that kind of life. But I’m not sure I wanna know you, man.