"'Vampire': A Delicious Chomp In the Dark"

by Rita Kempley ("Washington Post," January 26, 2001)

"The Shadow of the Vampire" pays its respects to the undead genre in this juicy spoof of F.W. Murnau's campy silent classic "Nosferatu." All the movie Counts that ever were trace their bloodlines back to Murnau's muddy, thinly disguised rip-off of Bram Stoker's "Dracula." (After the Widow Stoker balked, Murnau basically made the film anyway and called it by another name.) Yet none has yet to top the grotesque invention of the German movie's mysterious Max Schreck.

Schreck -- whose name is German for "fright" -- was so convincingly cadaverous that wigged-out post-World War I audiences suspected he just might be the real thing. And that's the premise of this fresh, wickedly funny tale by debuting screenwriter Steve Katz and sophomore director E. Elias Merhige: that Murnau, a stickler for authenticity, did in fact cast a vampire in the title role. Little did he know that the fiend would have acting in his blood.

"Shadow" imagines the making of "Nosferatu," a process that becomes increasingly imperiled by the "creative differences" that develop between the fanatical Murnau (John Malkovich) and his difficult star (Willem Dafoe). To prepare his cast for Schreck's eccentricities, Murnau explains that as a disciple of the new Stanislavsky method of acting, Schreck will remain in character and costume at all times and shoot his scenes only at night.

The cast and crew, who have been filming in a studio in Berlin, first meet their co-star on location in the Carpathians. An urbane lot, they are already discomfited by their accommodations, a gloomy inn nestled at the base of a ruined castle. Then they get a gander at Schreck. (Kudos to the folks in costumes and makeup, who transformed Dafoe into a pallid, raccoon-eyed, casket-svelte ghoul complete with filthy talons and a rodent's front teeth.)

During the first night shoot, the cinematographer (Ronan Vibert) suddenly falls ill and collapses, forcing Murnau to return to Berlin in search of a replacement (Cary Elwes). It's obvious that Schreck has been chewing more than scenery, and Murnau, behind schedule and over budget, bawls him out. "Why not the script girl?" shouts Murnau. "I'll eat her later," crows Schreck, who is this close to asking Murnau for a star on his coffin.

The enmity between the two builds throughout the shoot, each argument more hilarious in its petulance than the last. Dafoe and Malkovich play these delicious scenes as if they were a couple of Kinder fighting over who gets to lick the cream off the Oreo cookie. When Schreck threatens to drain the leading lady before the final scene, Murnau threatens, "I will replace you with the double! I will do every scene of yours with the double. You, you will have no close-ups whatsoever."

As shooting progresses, however, it becomes clear that Murnau and Schreck are kindred spirits when it comes to their obsessions -- although, truth be told, the vampire's ambitions are purer. He's hungry. Murnau, on the other hand, drains actors of their creativity, captures their life's work and his for all eternity. He practically drools as he rolls camera.

"Shadow" re-creates some of the flickering black-and-white scenes from "Nosferatu," although they are clearer, cleaner and slier than the originals. The actors are hams of the highest order, slathered in greasepaint and operatic in their gestures. British stand-up comic Eddie Izzard tweaks the florid style as Gustav Von Wangenheim, a renowned bad actor of the period who specialized in raised eyebrows.

Spittle flies, but Malkovich shows a bit of restraint as the overwrought genius of German expressionism. He and Dafoe are backed by an exemplary supporting cast, including Catherine McCormack, "Nosferatu's" decadent leading lady; Udo Kier as its long-suffering producer; and John Aden Gillet as the screenwriter who nearly becomes an hors d'oeuvre.

But Dafoe's vamping vampire is a tour de farce, both a stealthy parody of the genre's necrophiliac conventions and a healthy transfusion of new blood. Whether drooling over the prospect of supping from a starlet's throat or creaking under the accumulated weight of eternal guilt, Dafoe offers a performance that's good to the last draught.

Shadow of the Vampire (89 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for some sexuality, drug use, violence and language.

"Blood relations" Nosferatu ... the legendary creation of director F.W. Murnau"

by Jim Shepard ("Sydney Morning Herald," January 27, 2001)

Cinema's fascination with the vampire legend began almost 80 years ago with the German director F.W. Murnau, whose Nosferatu still haunts the imaginations of those who come after him, writes Jim Shepard.
The opening this week of E. Elias Merhige's film Shadow of the Vampire, with its attention-snagging stars John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe, marks the fourth time film-makers have resuscitated this version of the vampire: Nosferatu, that disturbingly peculiar and apparently iconic figure created by an odd little group of Germans 79 years ago.
The premise of Merhige's film is that in making Nosferatu, the first vampire film and one of the silent cinema's masterpieces, the legendary director F.W. Murnau employed a real vampire in the title role. The conceit is understandable to anyone who's seen the original film: Murnau, his art director, Albin Grau, and his screenwriter, Henrik Galeen, all must have rummaged around in their psychic basements in order to help Max Schreck (whose last name, conveniently, means terror or horror in German) generate a performance that's conversation stopping in its sinister strangeness and dignified repulsiveness.
If there's anyone in film history who seems to have wandered in from another world, it's Schreck's Nosferatu, evoking through his make-up and manner, rat, spider and skull. He's the unsettling centre of a film that moved figures as diverse as Andre{AAC} Breton and Jack Kerouac to rhapsodies and which continues to influence film-makers to this day.
The most flatfooted evidence of influence, of course, involves the direct re-creations. First, Werner Herzog paid homage to the film in 1979 by remaking it, at times nearly shot for shot, with Klaus Kinski who might have been the '70s graven image of sinister strangeness and dignified repulsiveness. Then Tobe Hooper decided that the vampire in his 1979 television film Salem's Lot, based on the Stephen King novel, would have Schreck's look: cadaverously egg-headed, with fangs like small ice picks, ears that suggest some crossbreeding with bats, and outlandishly long claws. And Nicolas Cage, one of the producers of Shadow of the Vampire, took a turn with the Schreck look himself, with frequently hilarious results, in Robert Bierman's 1989 horror comedy Vampire's Kiss.
In Shadow of the Vampire, Dafoe, as Schreck, also intermittently plays his overall grotesquerie for laughs. His performance is congruent with John Malkovich's, whose Herr Direktor Murnau flamboyantly loses his Teutonic reserve every five minutes. Even so, as the film progresses, the horsing around gives way to the resiliently predatory frightfulness of Nosferatu's appearance.
But Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror, the original film's full title, is not one of the most celebrated films of the silent period just because it featured a scary vampire. Murnau's first nine films were lost; he owes his status among cineastes to Nosferatu and the films that followed it, especially Der Letzte Mann, Faust, Sunrise and Tabu. (He was killed in 1931, when his Packard overturned outside Santa Barbara, just before the premiere of Tabu.)
He is generally credited with having been the first to understand the expressive potential of the moving camera, but he was already one of the first to consistently design individual shots (referred to as tableaus by early film-makers) as not simply static compositions but negotiable spaces open to every sort of intrusion and transformation. He turned Nosferatu into an inventory of entries and exits, of trajectories in which the frame was explored in unexpectedly eloquent ways; and in doing so, he further liberated movies from their theatrical mind-set.
For their plot, Murnau and Galeen pillaged Bram Stoker's Dracula and the vampire's liminal status (dead or alive, part of our world or wholly other world?) was beautifully suited to Murnau's larger cinematic project. Each character in the film has his or her own way of moving, of making visually tangible what each represents. Hutter, the Jonathan Harker figure, is all doltish energy and precipitous rushing about, always active and never effective; his wife, Ellen, responds with a resigned and somnambulant grace.
Nosferatu maintains the stillness of a figure in a bad dream or a spider on its web. He rises from his coffin like a plank. He ascends stairs with an awful, quick-footed walk. His shadow spreads across walls or bedclothes like an ink stain. He appropriates and contaminates whatever space he's in. His initial stalking of Hutter is rendered from Hutter's point of view in a series of dissolves which mimics the mechanism of nightmare, the vampire's frozen figure nonetheless becoming progressively larger: he isn't moving, but he keeps getting closer. And in one of the most disturbingly beautiful shots in film history, his quietly insidious arrival in Bremen is heralded by his ship's smoothly innocuous glide into a placid long shot of the harbour.
Much of the power of Nosferatu comes from its efficacy at rendering the permeability of the border between the familiar and the uncanny and presenting us with a nature that seems to operate, as one critic put it, "under the shadow of the supernatural". The oblique neutrality of waves in the moonlight, the baulky jumpiness of horses in a field, windswept dunes spotted with listing and canted crosses: Murnau's genius at infusing apparent tranquillity with an underlying unease and dread has inspired countless films as diverse as Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock and Jacques Tournier's Cat People.
None of that, though, gets at how truly weird Nosferatu is. The scenes between Hutter and Ellen feel bizarrely charged, even before he leaves for the castle. Knock, the house agent who is Hutter's boss, seems to be practising a kind of homespun diabolism before the vampire even arrives to take possession of his new home. Hutter, after his escape from the castle, noticeably dawdles in his race with the vampire to his hometown. The film's structure seems to insist that we not single out the vampire as its only source of anxiety.
The viewer is repeatedly presented with visual juxtapositions that seem to assert that the polarities we expect will be maintained such as purity and corruption, innocence and knowledge, or desire and repulsion are breaking down. The morning after Hutter's first night in the castle, he notices marks on his throat in the mirror and smiles. At the moment of his greatest danger the next night, with him in a swoon and his baleful, implacable host looming over his bed, we cut suddenly to Ellen, back in Bremen, sitting bolt upright in her bed, stretching out her arms and calling to him. But it's Nosferatu who responds, turning from his prey and gazing offscreen in a perfect eyeline match, confirming the film's subversive implication that the pure at heart are as much on the monster's wavelength as those already given over to perdition.
As successfully as any film ever has, then, Nosferatu poses the question at the heart of expressionism: where does the infected soul stop and the world begin? Hutter and Ellen, reunited in Bremen, kiss and we cut to a close-up of Nosferatu, who smiles.
All of this becomes somewhat more resonant when we remember that Murnau, born Friedrich Plumpe, was semi-voluntarily exiled from his family because of his sexual orientation; the exile left him feeling both a part of the world around him and something else altogether. He would have been aware of a belief among Slovakians that vampires came from the ranks of those excommunicated from the church, or from their own lives: suicides, apostates and those cursed by their parents. He certainly must have registered at least what Stoker did: the usefulness of vampirism as a way of animating the unspeakable. ("From the seed of Belial," we're told, the vampire has sprung and he sails to Bremen on a ship called the Demeter.)
The figure of Nosferatu is a grotesque and frightening form of desire, a version of the awakened or indulged wish that's both irresistibly powerful and pestilentially dangerous. The figure of Van Helsing, representing rational science and hardy, masculine, can-do industry, is completely ineffectual in Murnau's version, dozing through the crisis and arriving too late to help. Instead, Ellen faces the threat alone.
We make the shocking transition from the irritating and frenetic digression of Knock's mad pursuit around Bremen to the utter stillness of Nosferatu, gazing out from the window of a creepily dilapidated house directly opposite Ellen's, like a real estate version of the unconscious. Ellen bolts awake. Hutter, naturally, does not. She wakes him and sends him for help. Then, after some agonising, she throws open the gateway of her window in a film filled with gateways and portals inviting Nosferatu in.
What follows is rightly famous. He leaves the window. She staggers drunkenly, her head in her hands. His shadow mounts a staircase. His shadow pauses outside her door, its fingers extending elastically across the wall to the knob in an unforgettable visualisation of the vampire's defiling reach. In bed, with him offscreen, she jerks her head down in anticipation of his touch and the shadow of his hand and arm spread upward across her white dressing gown. The shadow-fist seizes her heart, leaving her in something between rapture and agony. We cross between the disturbingly intimate and understated image of him feeding at her neck in a long shot of the room and Hutter not hurrying back with the groggy Van Helsing figure in tow.
Her sacrifice succeeds: Nosferatu is caught by the cock's crow, loses his malevolent power and staggers around in the sunlight like someone having a coronary. He dissolves, the same cinematic technology used to create him erasing him. Hutter continues to stroll home. Ellen lasts long enough to fall into Hutter's embrace upon his return and she dies in his arms, her sacrifice complete.
The inter-title announces, "At that very hour the Great Death ceased and the shadow of the vampire vanished as if overcome by the victorious rays of the living sun." It's the good news everyone's been waiting for.
Except Murnau was careful to have it follow not the monster's death, which had taken place four scenes earlier, but Ellen's death. It's her death that's required and her death that abolishes the taint. And the film's insistence on the necessity of destroying what it claims it most values may be its only real perverseness.

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