`Vampire' sheds light on a dark film

Review: Here's a nice stroll down memory lane - but be careful

those shadows can be a pain in the neck.

January 26, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN FILM CRITIC

Method acting is one thing. But casting a real-life vampire to play a vampire in your new film ... isn't that carrying things just a bit too far?

Certainly, if the question is directed at the film's co-stars, who may not fancy the star paying so much attention to their necks. But maybe not, if the person being asked is F.W. Murnau, the legendary German silent film director casting "Nosferatu."

After all, when you're the director, is anything off-limits when it comes to making a movie?

Director E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire" is an imaginative and deliciously horrific film that pays homage to the beauty of the silent cinema, offers an amusing take on the megalomania that sometimes passes for genius among film directors and offers more evidence that being one of the undead is no picnic.

Much of what the movie portrays is absolutely true. There really was an F.W. Murnau, regarded as one of German's top silent-era filmmakers. He really did make a film called "Nosferatu," a blatant rip-off of "Dracula" (Bram Stoker's widow refused to sell Murnau the rights to her husband's book). And it really was a cinematic masterpiece, a ghoulish, forbidding exercise in surrealistic horror that genuinely expanded the vocabulary of film (and, unintentionally, ensured the continuing popularity of "Dracula").

And the 1922 film really did star an actor named Max Schreck, whose name was the German word for "scare," and whose prosthetic makeup turned his image as the infamous bloodsucker into a cinematic icon.

As far as anyone knows, however, Schreck was no vampire - even though his life stands as a classic example of obscurity. A biography of Murnau once referred to him simply as "an actor of no distinction." "The Film Encyclopedia," in its six-line bio, says only that he was a "character player of German stage and screen." Even hardened cinephiles would be hard-pressed to name another film in which he starred.

But that's where the concept behind "Shadow" is so ingenious. This guy looks so weird in the original film - hollow eyes, pointed ears, exaggerated fingernails - and so little is known about him, who's to say he wasn't a vampire?

Merhige's film opens with Schreck often discussed, but never seen. Murnau (John Malkovich, who never seems totally comfortable in the great director's skin) has been working on his film for weeks, but as yet, no one has met his star. This makes the film's producer and financial backers understandably nervous, but so great is Murnau's reputation that they trust he knows what he's doing.

Finally, Schreck (a wonderfully curdled Willem Dafoe) shows up, oozing out of the darkness for a few location shots made in the bowels of a local castle. The cast and crew are uniformly creeped-out - Schreck, Murnau explains, is a practitioner of method acting, trained by Stanislavsky himself, and so will remain in makeup throughout the production - but also have to admit he meets the role's requirements.

As well he should. Murnau has gotten this centuries-old vampire to appear in the film in exchange for the neck of the lovely Greta (Catherine McCormack), his leading lady. Only two stipulations apply: no snacking on other members of the company, and no drinking Greta until filming is completed.

But vampires don't know much about keeping agreements, it seems. Max can't help but bite a few necks along the way. Which both makes it hard for Murnau to continue filming (oh, the inconvenience) and lessens the director's tenuous hold on his star, who can't help but drool whenever Greta is around.

Will Schreck keep to his agreement? Will Murnau? And, most importantly, will "Nosferatu" ever be completed?

Merhige ("Begotten") sprinkles clips of the real "Nosferatu" throughout the film, and he and screenwriter Steven Katz obviously have a deep affection for the silent cinema, utilizing both its acting and lighting techniques. The actors, too, seem to be enjoying their association with an extinct art form.

Dafoe is especially fun to watch as Schreck, who looks decidedly out-of-place whenever acting in the film-within-a-film. In all his centuries of un-life, Schreck has never experienced anything like a movie camera. It seems even vampires can experience stage fright.

"Shadow of the Vampire" displays a disturbing propensity for using title cards to explain things, then having the actors explain it again within a few minutes. And things unravel a bit at the end, as Katz and Merhige struggle to manipulate events so their film can end with the famous final scene of "Nosferatu."

But the film paints a vivid and darkly humorous picture of a world where directors are all-powerful and vampires are real; whether you want to buy into either fantasy is up to you. I did, and had a grand old time.

`Shadow of the Vampire'

Starring John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Catherine McCormack

Directed by E. Elias Merhige

Released by Lions Gate Films

Running time 93 minutes

Rated R (some sexuality, drug content, violence and language)

Sun score: ***

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