It’s 1922, and legendary German director F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is busy lensing his silent film Nosferatu, destined to become a classic of its genre. Based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (while pretending, due to copyright laws, not to be based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula), the film details the exploits of the mysterious Count Orlock, who happens to be of the vampire persuasion. Now suppose for a moment that Murnau was so obsessed with realism, that he hired a real live vampire (Willem Dafoe) to play the part. Rather, make that a real undead vampire, and you have the premise behind Shadow of the Vampire.
Ever since Nosferatu was released, an air of mystery has surrounded the actor (Max Schreck) who played the sinister Count. Not only was Nosferatu his first film, but “schreck” is the German word for terror. What are the chances of an actor coming from out of nowhere with a surname which so uncannily suits his character? But whether “Max Schreck” was the actor’s real name or just a pseudonym, he went on to play in several later films under the same billing, which suddenly makes him seem a lot less sinister. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say he probably wasn’t a real vampire.
Before you start hurling bricks in my direction, let me assure you I know director E. Elias Merhige is only having fun with the idea and not claiming it’s true. I can even accept minor alterations in the vampire’s appearance (Dafoe’s unsightly front teeth were actually fangs in the original film, and his ultra-long fingernails were originally ultra-long fingers) to make it more plausible that Schreck played the role without makeup. But then what are we to make of scenes depicting Murnau as addicted to morphine, or others portraying him as a crazed egomaniac unconcerned for the lives of his actors and crew? Such assertions would be libelous if false, yet there is such a blurring of reality and fantasy in this film that it’s impossible to tell which elements are supposed to be based on truth.
Okay, you say, let’s just set aside the whole “what’s true and what’s artistic license” debate and just evaluate the film as a work of fiction. Problem is that when you do this, you’re faced with the realization this movie has no plot. I’m not kidding – the whole enterprise is just a weakly-connected collection of sequences detailing the filming of certain scenes of Nosferatu. And since they’re all fake, they don’t even have the crutch of “this really happened” to fall back on as an apology for their banality. Willem Dafoe overacts terribly (not that one could ever overact well) in practically every scene he’s in, turning undertones of dread about Mr. Schreck into high camp. He acts like he thinks the movie is a comedy, while everyone else is busy playing it as a drama. Director Merhige apparently never noticed his lead actor was genre-confused. Then there’s Malkovich, who has that affected delivery which either convinces you he should be reciting Shakespeare or makes you wonder if he’s struggling with a speech impediment. Although that quirkiness might make him a natural to play an egotistical German film director, I think what this movie needed was some casting against type just to liven things up. The way things are now, every aspect of the movie is a bland rendition of what everyone assumes a German film company would be like, complete with all the clichés. Yawn…
Late in the film the producer draws a pistol on the set and shoots Schreck three times without effect. I’m willing to bet this didn’t really happen. But by this time, the film has so lost touch with any remaining semblance of reality, the filmmakers have no qualms about showing their producer shooting the star of his classic film. It’s an obvious act of desperation to breathe some kind of life into their story. Alas, their story, like the vampire himself, died long ago.