Shadow of the Vampire
by Jon Bastian
An excellent cast and a good script are trashed by an incompetent director, reducing a promising project to a mere shadow of what it could have been.
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Shadow Of The Vampire has a hell of a lot to recommend it going in. The premise is one of those must-see knock-out ideas that makes any true film fan sit up and take notice on first mention. I’m not giving anything away to say the film is a “what if” riff on the premise that German film director F.W. Murnau hired a real vampire to star in his not-quite-authorized 1922 version of Dracula, called “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens.” That idea alone is juicy as all get-out, but throw in a phenomenal cast — Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier and Cary Elwes — and this has got to be a piece of celluloid dynamite, right?
Oh, that it were so.
To say that Shadow Of The Vampire badly misses the target is an understatement. Director E. Elias Merhige (Begotten) isn’t even standing on the shooting range — and, make no mistake, all of the problems here land squarely in his lap. The actors clearly get what’s going on and the script, by Steven Katz (From The Earth To The Moon, Part 1) would have lived up to its premise with a lighter hand behind it. All the words are there, but everything is sunk by Merhige’s absolutely leaden execution. This is the kind of idea that Ken Russell could have had a balls-to-the-wall field day with. But I got the distinct impression that Merhige took the whole thing far too seriously, as if he were making Art with a capital “A.” C’mon, it’s a vampire flick with a nice historical twist and some interesting characters. Have fun with it. Unfortunately, Merhige seems to share his onscreen Murnau’s overblown sentiments about film. I have no doubt that both of them would run screaming at the phrase, “It’s only a movie.” Unfortunately, this could have been an incredible “only a movie” movie.
John Malkovich’s F.W. Murnau is presented here as an autocratic megalomaniac to whom the only important thing is getting the shot. His cast and crew are really secondary, despite his protestations to the contrary. In the film, as in real life, he deals with the little obstacle of not being able to get the rights to Dracula by blithely changing the names. In fact, Bram Stoker’s widow sued and won, and had all known prints and negatives of Nosferatu destroyed. Ironically, that film has only survived because of people who in turn ripped off Murnau by bootlegging copies. And they say Napster is a bad thing…
As we meet Murnau, he is preparing to haul his cast and crew off to Czechoslovakia, over the protestations of his producer, Albin Grau (Udo Kier). He’s doing this at great expense because, he says, he’s found a method actor, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), to play his vampire. Unbeknownst to everyone but Murnau, Schreck is the real deal, who has been terrorizing the eastern European peasants for centuries. He will only appear to the cast in full make-up and costume, and all of his scenes will be shot at night. Also known only to Murnau, his end of the Faustian bargain entails the promise that Schreck will get to sink his fangs into leading lady Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack) as soon as the shooting is done.
These early scenes are properly atmospheric, laced with an edge of dark humor, and highlighted by his producer’s increasing frustration over Murnau’s caprices. (In real life, Nosferatu was the only film Albin Grau ever produced.) It is nice, if you’re an Udo Kier fan (as I am) to finally see him in a close to leading role, rather than typecast and wasted as a bit-part mincing Euro-poof. As Murnau’s lead “Thomas Hutter” (née Jonathan Harker), aka silent film actor Gustav von Wangenheim, Eddie Izzard provides a nice prima donna feeling, and his recreations of the real von Wangenheim’s scenes are amusing, as Izzard has to pull off the tricky task of properly over-acting in bug-eyed, big gestured silent movie style.
So far, so good, and Katz takes his time to build up to the introduction of the vampire. When Schreck finally does appear, it’s the same way that Count Orlok does in the movie, emerging slowly, but not completely, from the shadows, then sinking back into the darkness. It’s also from this point that the film falls apart, despite Willem Dafoe’s bravura performance. Hidden by the heavy, rat-like make-up and mile-long fingers of the original, Dafoe really does disappear into this role, but it’s his acting just as much as the prostheses that does the job. The problem is, once the concept is sprung, Merhige just didn’t seem to have a clue how to handle him. Consequently, he takes half measures in all possible directions and winds up with mush. Is the film a comedy about a vampire pretending to be an actor pretending to be a vampire? Sometimes. Is it a “making of” story about Nosferatu? Sometimes. Is it a horror movie with a lurking monster ready to pick the cast and crew off one by one? Well, sort of. It’s a little bit of all those, so fails to succeed as any of them, because the tone is appropriate to none of them.
Perhaps the film’s biggest shortcoming is in the horror department. In order to have a sense of menace, you have to care about the people in peril, and it’s hard to care about any of the people here. Merhige takes no time to develop character, often pushing his cast into talking head tableaus that leave them indistinguishable. Murnau, as depicted, is just a pompous jackass, and von Wagenheim is abruptly gone once his Nosferatu scenes have been shot. Likewise, one major player shows up late in the game, and while he does have the necessary heroic élan, he isn’t there long enough to get to care about. The leading lady is shallow and self-centered, so when her neck is suddenly close to being bitten, we’re rooting for the vampire.
And, other than the usual show biz insider kvetching, the film really isn’t a comedy. There are a few guffaws here and there, but it all spins to an ugly conclusion down such a grim path that it’s hard to find any humor. Case in point — when a drunk and maudlin Schreck snatches a bat from mid-air and proceeds to pull an Ozzie Osbourne on it in front of two startled witnesses, the moment should be hilarious. It’s not. The scenes in which he pouts and bickers with his director, like any other spoiled and demanding actor, could have been funny but they’re all Sturm und Drang, no irony. Every single one of them feels like the same argument, so they become repetitious and one-note pretty quickly.
Right now, in the industry, there’s some controversy between the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild over the so-called vanity credit, that is, “A Film by (Director)” that appears at the top of many movies. The WGA thinks (and rightly so, though — full disclosure — I am a member) that this credit oversteps the bounds of the director by ignoring the contributions of not only the writer, but of everyone else who worked on the film. Of course it’s true that a great director can put his imprint on a movie, and if the director contributes materially to the screenplay and gets credit, then maybe he or she does deserve a “film by” nod. But it’s also true that a director can completely devastate the work of the writer and actors and others by taking the wrong approach, and I haven’t seen a better example of that kind of artistic sabotage than Shadow Of The Vampire. Maybe it should have opened with the credit, “A Film Ruined by E. Elias Merhige.”
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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