F. W Murnau’ iconic film Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens holds a much discussed and storied legacy, giving the world the very first cinematic depiction of a vampire via the mesmeric performance of Max Schreck. It has influenced every cinematic depiction of vampires from that point on, garnered a Werner Herzog remake and perhaps most intriguing of all, a fantastical fictionalized account of its production in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire.
The modern re-telling was directed by E. Elias Merhige, perhaps better known as director of a number of shock-rocker Marilyn Manson’s music videos. A departure from his previous work, in Shadow of the Vampire Merhige turned his gaze toward Murnau’s 1922 expressionist horror classic. Rather than a straight biographical account of the film’s production, Shadow of the Vampire gives us a delightfully dark, baroque ‘What if’ tale. The film supposes that Murnau had made a pact with a real life Vampire, a Faustian deal with the undead, to create his masterpiece at any cost. Even at the expense of his cast and crew…
Originally given the working title Burned to Light, Shadow of the Vampire was produced by Nicholas Cage’s Saturn films on a budget of approximately $8 million and shot on location in Luxembourg- the rustic locale also used in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). The film was a modest success, amassing $11.1 million in worldwide grosses. It was perhaps a little too arty for broad appeal, with a humour too dark for some palettes.
Objectively, Shadow of the Vampire was an intriguing prospect. To re-visit perhaps one of the greatest horror movies of all time and examine it under a different lens is a fascinating idea in and of itself. Add to that a fantastical Count Orlok as a “living”, breathing vampire, primarily concerned with his own self-predication placed in the historical context of Nosferatu the film- it was an undoubted gem of an idea.
“With an intimidating cast of talent to bring Shadow of the Vampire to life, the film undoubtedly owes much of its power and humorous charm to its key players.”
With an intimidating cast of talent to bring Shadow of the Vampire to life, the film undoubtedly owes much of its power and humorous charm to its key players. John Malkovich in the role of F. W. Murnau is every inch the mad scientist of a classic horror. He crashes through his production in a lab coat and goggles, gesticulating wildly and passionately emphasizing his vision. He is a man driven by a purpose. It begs the question: Who the real monster? Is it the un-dead creature stalking the production company, or is it Mernau himself, willingly sacrificing the lives of those around him to appease the ancient being with whom he has made his ungodly pact. It’s a role that most certainly required a man of Malkovich’s substantial talents to convey.
The role of Max Schreck is eerily brought to life by Willem Dafoe, his skeletal frame lending perfectly to playing the vampiric star. Dafoe’s Schreck/Orlok is a wide-eyed ghoul stalking the production. The ensuing battle of wills between him and Malkovich’s Murnau is a comedic and dramatic joy to behold. A decaying, and at times pitiful figure, Dafoe’ Schreck is both vulnerable, sympathetic and dangerous. Unble to remember what it is to be human, the minutiae of everyday life, and even the face of the woman who made him, has long slipped from his memory. To complement the lead actors, there is an insanely strong ensemble of support including Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack and Udo Kier. Members of the supporting cast are no strangers to vampires themselves, Kier having played the title role in the 1974 film Blood for Dracula, Elwes played Arthur Holmwood in Bram Stokers Dracula and Dafoe also starred in The Hunger.
“[Shadow of a Vampire] blurs the lines between factual and fantastical in a deliciously dark and humorous fashion..”
Shadow of the Vampire, in my humble opinion, is one of the great under-the-radar horror comedies of the early 21st Century. It ticks so many boxes for die-hard horror fans that I find it difficult to describe it any other way. Firstly, we get to see a familiar story told in a way that blurs the lines between factual and fantastical in a deliciously dark and humorous fashion- Anything but the norm for a semi-biographical account of an all time cinematic classic. We are treated to an embarrassing wealth of acting talent having an absolute ball with the script, hamming it up and lacing their work with humor, drama and pathos. Lastly (and a prime reason I hold this film in such high regard), the movie is a great example of Punk-rock film-making.
Shadow of the Vampire is an original, “out-there” idea shopped to an independent production company with little concern for convention. It takes bold chances, and could have easily failed without Merhige’s direction and the undoubted caliber of a cast tasked with making this insane idea not only work, but work beautifully. Shadow of the Vampire is a film that may well be forgotten by the general cinema going public but absolutely requires a revisit. It will dazzle, it will make you laugh, at times cringe and most importantly, it will entertain in abundance.