Click here 3 stars

in the dark

Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich team up
for an imaginative story based on a classic of horror

"Shadow of the Vampire"

Reviewed by Carlos deVillalvilla

(Click on the image to see a larger version and credit. DVD notes below.)

Since we cringed in caves at the dawn of time, we have been scared of the dark. The dark hides the things we can't see; our imagination makes those things hideous. The noise of wind rustling through the trees becomes a stranger, with a knife, creeping through the grass. Fear has always been more a product of our imaginations more than anything else.

Catherine McCormack, Willem DafoeThat fear was never better crystalized than in the masterwork novel of Bram Stoker, "Dracula." It captured the imagination of millions from the time it was published even up to this 21st century. Stoker made the monsters of our imagination real, demons in the dark made flesh.

Filmmaker F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) was fascinated by the novel, and yearned to film it. He was denied permission by the Stoker estate, but was determined to make the ultimate horror movie anyway.

John Malkovich, Willem DafoeMurnau recognized that realism would make his horror all the more effective. To that end, he hired an unusual actor by the name of Max Schreck (which, translated from German, means "shriek") to play his Count Orlock. Schreck (Willem Dafoe) is a strange sort who demands that he be addressed as Orlock, and is in character (and the accompanying creepy-looking costume) at all times.

John Malkovich, Aden GillettIt appears that Murnau's vision is being realized. The film, "Nosferatu," is turning out to be everything he hoped - one of the classic horror films of all time.

Still, things are not quite right. His cinematographer (Aden Gillett) has taken mysteriously ill and is near death. Murnau must shut down the production to procure a new one. While he is gone, mysterious deaths haunt the production. When Murnau returns with his drug-addled replacement (Cary Elwes), it soon becomes apparent that the terrifying Schreck is much more than he seems. And he has an unhealthy obsession with the movies leading lady (Catherine McCormick, Mel Gibson's wife in "Braveheart"). You see, Schreck is not some Stanislavsky disciple taking the method to extremes; he IS undead.

John MalkovichWhat a fascinating and terrific idea for a movie this is. "Nosferatu" remains one of the most brilliant and terrifying movies ever made, and the mystery surrounding the real Max Schreck makes for some interesting speculation. "Max Schreck" was almost certainly a stage name; nobody knows for sure who he really was. Heck, he COULD have been a vampire.

Screenwriter Steven Katz was inspired by the original film, and includes many little touches that ring true; the decadence of jazz age Berlin; the solitude and creepiness of the castle exteriors. He even adds the little factoid that Murnau's crew shot their movies while wearing lab coats and goggles, giving the proceedings a pseudo-scientific air.

Catherine McCormack, Cary ElwesDirector Elias Merhige ("Begotten") has assembled an impressive cast, including one-time Warhol associate Udo Kier as a producer. Dafoe gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the sinister Schreck, an ancient who has grown too old, watching a century he does not understand encroach into the only world he has ever known. It is strangely affecting.

The problem here is that Merhige often sacrifices his story for the sake of atmosphere and art. He is successful at creating a genuinely creepy vibe, using old-time film effects and title cards to enhance the mood and set the period. As a result, the look of the film holds up next to the original, a not-inconsiderable task in itself.

But an overly long opening credits sequence put my jaw on edge from the beginning, not the way you want your audience to go into a movie like this. I found the pacing overall to be a bit slow. The film's climax is also a bit off-putting.

That said, this is a genuine creep-out that will stand your hair on end in various places. Dafoe's performance by itself is commendable. It's funny, sad and terrifying all at once. "Shadow of the Vampire" wisely uses the best monster of all - our imaginations and our fear of the dark - to its advantage.

Watch this one at home - with the lights off, if possible. However, those of faint heart are allowed to wimp out and leave 'em on.
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DVD notes

Great transfer of the movie, as usual with quality DVDs, but the extra features are not especially well conceived or delivered. Basically, a few interviews — with Willem Dafoe, director Elias Merhige and producer Nicolas Cage — and a still-photo montage of Dafoe's make-up being applied.

But, here's my chance to agree with much of what Carlos said about this film, and maybe rave a bit more about Dafoe.

I liked Benicio Del Toro in "Traffic" — for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, beating Dafoe — but Dafoe's is one of the most amazing performances I've seen by any actor for many years. He makes Schreck some kind of a primitive, nearly out-of-control beast at times, almost human and complex, with pathos, at others. He completely controls the screen in scenes with John Malkovich, which is nearly impossible.

Dafoe's face and what it does invests this movie with an entire separate level of dialogue that make it a greater film than it otherwise is in the hands of director and producers who obviously had less than a coherent vision for it. The film reeks of committee work.

If I were rating this film I'd probably want to give the overall film three stars, but would want to give Dafoe five stars. It is a brilliant, amazing performance. I'll watch this movie again and again, no doubt, just to see his performance.

Also, I want to mention that early filmmakers wore those dark goggles because of the brightness of the lights used. This movie doesn't make that clear, because that kind of lighting would look ridiculous with today's films.

— John Orr