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A Delectably Dark 'Shadow'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2001


    'Shadow of the Vampire' John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe in "Shadow of the Vampire." (Lions Gate)
"Shadow of the Vampire" swoops batlike into the atmospheric darkness of the silent horror-movie era and comes up with a wonderful, wriggling little premise: What if the actor who played Dracula in the classic "Nosferatu" really was a vampire?

"Nosferatu," a real movie made in 1922 by directorial genius F.W. Murnau, is considered one of the greatest vampire films ever made. And it starred an actor known as Max Schreck, of whom little is known. But the performer, whose last name is the German for "shriek" or "yell," gave the movie an authentically chilly presence. This historical uncertainty about Schreck has excited the creative bloodlust of screenwriter Steven Katz and director E. Elias Merhige. The great result: "Shadow of the Vampire" is diabolically amusing without plunging into the Mel Brooks zone, and it's smart without being pedantic. And it's genuinely scary at times.

In "Shadow," we are in the early 1920s in Germany, which marks the boom of a film movement known as German Expressionism. The country is exploding with great movies, most of them thrillers with psychologically dark themes.

One of the leading filmmakers of that time is German director Murnau (played with wonderfully spirited mania by John Malkovich) who has just suffered the first of many setbacks for his new vampire movie.

The widow of Bram Stoker, author of "Dracula," has refused to give him the rights to the book. So Murnau and his scriptwriter, Henrick Galeen (John Aden Gillet), get to work on a story about a certain Count Orlock in a movie they decide to call "Nosferatu."

Murnau is considered a genius. But it's unclear whether people believe this or they just heard it from Murnau himself. He certainly acts like one, confounding money investors with his plans – which he reveals to no one until painfully necessary.

For "Nosferatu," he refuses to make his movie on soundstages, like most filmmakers around him. He demands that the film crew shoot at various locales including Czechoslovakia, to convey an external sense of doom and gloom. And to the chagrin of his producer, Albin Grau (Udo Kier), he's extremely secretive about the actor who'll play the part of Count Orlock.

Finally, Murnau informs his crew that a certain Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), who worked with the famous theatrical director Max Reinhardt, will take the role. Schreck is so intense about his part, says Murnau, he's going to stay in character. This means Schreck will be "acting" like a vampire all the time. It also means Schreck is only available for nighttime shooting.

With a buildup like this, Murnau gets exactly what he wants: genuine terror from his stars, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack) and Gustav von Wangerheim (Eddie Izzard), and one helluva realistic vampire. But is Schreck, who seems unusually excited about the prospect of biting into people's necks, "realistic" or just plain real? And if he is real, what kind of devil's agreement did Murnau forge with Schreck?

Malkovich is just right as a director who is so consumed with creating a masterpiece for posterity that he'll stop at nothing. Unfortunately, various members of the crew are starting to feel the bite of this artistic dedication.

"Why him, you monster?" sputters Murnau, when he realizes Schreck has helped himself to the first cameraman. "Why not the script girl?"

Dafoe, not surprisingly, is the scene stealer in this movie. A snorting, animalistic creature, who grunts with ecstasy at the thought of blood, he's no smooth, dapper Bela Lugosi. And there are amusingly restrained performances from Kier as the forever-exasperated producer and Cary Elwes as Murnau's replacement cameraman. Elwes' German accent (apart from German-born Kier's) is the best in the movie.

The ultimate credit, however, must go to filmmakers Merhige (whose debut was the 1991 "Begotten," which I haven't seen, but apparently it features God disemboweling himself with a razor) and Katz. They have created a perfect synthesis of classical tribute and contemporary entertainment. In his first scene with Schreck, which is also the first time he has set eyes on him, actor Gustav has to encounter the mysterious performer in a dark tunnel while Murnau and crew hand-crank their primitive cameras in the background. Gustav hesitates at the mouth of the dark tunnel, utterly terrified.

"Gustav, you must follow him into the tunnel," booms Murnau. At that point, producer Albin speaks quietly to the director.

"Where did you find him, really?" asks Albin, referring to Schreck, as Gustav disappears into the darkness.

"In that hole," Murnau says.

"Shadow of the Vampire" (R, 89 minutes) – In black-and-white and color. Contains nudity, obscenity and a little bloodsucking in the shadows.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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