Shadow of the Vampire is high concept cinema in bizarre fashion. It’s not wholly successful in its execution as it struggles to fill the running time of the silent era features it clearly adores. The gimmick is clever on paper and effective occasionally on-screen… what if your lead vampire in your movie was an actual one?
In Steven Katz’s script, the picture happens to be the 1922 German classic Nosferatu. The people portrayed here are real. What happens with them is not. John Malkovich is director F.W. Murnau. He can’t get the rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel so he simply changes the names and keeps the plot (that part is true and resulted in legal proceedings). His casting of Dracu…, or Nosferatu, is said to be unknown theater actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe). It’s explained that he’s severely Method in his approach. The cast and crew, which includes Eddie Izzard in the Jonathan Harker part and Catherine McCormack as Mina, just go with it. That is until disappearances and strange illnesses begin to occur. Murnau knows the real secret. Max isn’t acting at all and he’s made a grand and deadly bargain to nab his lead. In lots of movies about making movies, the studio brass or producers are the bloodsuckers. Not here.
The project is centered on just how far a filmmaker will go to make a masterpiece. And Murnau’s heart of darkness takes him down some pitch black roads (in real life he was said to be a swell guy). Portraying pomposity and madness is right up Malkovich’s sleeve and he did it far more memorably in Being John Malkovich.
Vampire belongs to Dafoe, unrecognizable except for those bulging eyes. Under his makeup, the actor is a joy to watch and is basically the reason this is worthwhile. E. Elias Merhige serves behind the camera here. He does excel at capturing the look of the pre talkies. Yet I never escaped a feeling that the idea behind all this seemed smarter in conception than realization.