80 – Shadow of the Vampire

Back in 1924, the silent movie Nosferatu was released. At the time (as now) it was the definitive expression of the timeless story of Count Dracula. There have been, of course, endless renditions of the 1896 Bram Stoker tale; however, Nosferatu was unique in that the medium of cinema was extremely new in 1924, and the maker had to deal with prejudices against this newfangled form of entertainment, which had to compete with the written word. Now, of course, a new Dracula film need not compete with the original story; it only needs to compete with earlier versions on film.

This movie explains the story of how Nosferatu was produced. The director, F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich), is filming his masterpiece in Germany (the widow of the story’s author refused to sign the rights to the story, so they couldn’t film in Transylvania or use any of the names in the book). His choice to play the part of the vampire Nosferatu is Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), a beastly, hideous man who will appear to the cast and crew only in character (an early example of Method acting, to be sure). Shreck will not travel or bunk with the company; he will live only in the cave dwelling that the film’s protagonist, Count Orlac, calls his home.

With a leading man that eccentric, it’s no wonder trouble appears on the set. People get sick, others appear listless and not quite into their work. Still, the tenacious Murnau pushes on. He must get his shot! His film must be completed! And as it progresses, he slips a little further into his own world, and Schrek – who, it has been said, played perhaps the ugliest vampire in film history – assumes more and more control over the direction of the movie (although not literally).

Dafoe is unrecognizable in makeup, but the sinister creepiness he brings to most of his roles is evident here. It’s an accomplished actor who can play a part in full makeup and still make the role distinguishable from… well, from some chump in a lot of makeup. Dafoe’s excellent here, and his interplay with Malkovich is galvanizing. Their scenes together are like an actor’s class on How To Emote and Project. There are times when each actor appears to ham it up slightly (or, in the case of Malkovich, more than slightly), but the two of them together constitute a casting coup.

This is a wonderful little film, yet another that didn’t quite get the acclaim it deserved. The atmosphere is both rich and compelling, both essential qualities for a film that’s all about vampires from long ago. This is not a movie that’s high on special effects, either; don’t expect to see a lot of flash and fancy. It’s also a homage to silent movies and to old-time horror films in general. It’s a minimalist film in terms of set itself, but much is done with so little.

Shadow of the Vampire: 7

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