The vault’s Halloween hoopla continues as does our all-too-favorite practice of celebrating celebrity birthdays! It was this day fifty years ago that the world welcomed the actor that would one day be known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, or to Psych fans as Pierre Despereaux. He also has the distinction of starring in two films about the vampire Dracula. The first, 1992′s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a more traditional retelling of the legend while the second, today’s selection and a more innovative retelling, is the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire.
Director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (John Malkovich) is filming the last of his studio shots in Berlin for his masterpiece, Nosferatu. The next day he and his crew embark for Czechoslovakia to join their principal star, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe). Schreck, who will portray Murnau’s vampire Count Orlok from his thinly veiled plagiary of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, always appears to the crew in character; full dress and make-up, demanding only to be shot at night. Unbeknownst to them, Schreck’s predilections are not a product of his acting style, but because he is in fact the vampire Count Orlok that Murnau has struck a shady bargain with in order to add authenticity to his work.
Fun trivia fact, especially for Dylan: Shadow of the Vampire is one of the first films produced under Nicolas Cage’s Saturn Films shingle and only one of its two films not to feature an acting role for Mr. Cage.That said, the story, penned by Steven Katz, creates an alternative reality where the history behind the production of the immortal film classic Nosferatu blends with the fantastical world of the ever-living. The characters’ dialogue offers wonderful descriptions and subtle nuance, while director E. Elias Merhige uses intertitles to provide plot points and cinematographic shifts to distinguish between life behind and in front of the camera.
Though the writing and direction are admirable, if you’ve watched Shadow of the Vampire you know it is the performance of Willem Dafoe that will overshadow all else. His Academy Award nominated makeup transforms the brilliant actor into the grotesque Orlok, but it is his speech and demeanor that makes both the characters and audiences alike marvel at his dedication. Dafoe’s disdainful snorts at Murnau’s demands and the anxious clicking of his long, yellowed nails are menacing, but his melodramatic flourishes while on the set are nearly comical. Dafoe has so many splendid scenes it’s hard to pick a favorite. Even if it were demanded of me, it would be a toss-up between his giddiness concerning the fate of the script girl and his pensive (and lip-smacking) fireside chat with producer Albin (Udo Kier) and screenwriter Henrik (Aden Gillett).
That’s not to say Malkovic’s performance is not worthwhile. Murnau’s obsession and nefarious tendencies are well conveyed, so much so you must wonder which is the greater monster on the film’s production. One of my favorite comedians, Eddie Izzard, lumbers about as Nosferatu‘s male lead, Gustav, and his reactions to Orlok’s eccentricities are quite amusing. After chief photographer Wolf (Ronan Vibert) falls ill, Cary Elwes swoops in as the fast-talking, loose cannon Fritz Arno Wagner to offer a fresh perspective on the crumbling production.
Shadow of the Vampire is an ingenious spin on the age-old tale of Dracula, which is hard to come by in this age of remakes and rehashed premises. Even if you aren’t up for period pieces or melodrama, it’s a delight simply to watch Willem Dafoe bring vibrant life to the undead.