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"SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE"
(2000) (John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A film director hires a real vampire to play such a part in his latest picture in this imagined scenario regarding the filming of the classic horror film, "Nosferatu."
PLOT:
It's 1921 Berlin and director F. W. Murnau (JOHN MALKOVICH) is shooting his latest film, "Nosferatu," a vampire picture. Much to the chagrin of his leading lady, Greta Schroeder (CATHERINE McCORMACK), Murnau has taken his cast and crew to a remote part of Eastern Europe where Greta and leading man Gustav Von Wangerheim (EDDIE IZZARD) are to shoot scenes with Max Schreck (WILLEM DAFOE), an actor who also turns out to be a real vampire.

Murnau doesn't inform his crew - producer Albin Grau (UDO KIER), writer Henrick Galeen (JOHN ADEN GILLET), and cameraman Wolfgang Muller (RONAN VIBERT) - of this interesting bit of casting. Instead, he simply tells them that Schreck is a method actor who's always in character and will only film at night.

Despite his promise to leave the cast and crew alone, Schreck can't help himself and attacks Muller, thus rendering him useless for the job. Murnau then returns from Berlin with a new cameraman, Fritz Wagner (CARY ELWES), and continues shooting his picture, with everyone still oblivious to Schreck's real identity.

Moving the production to an isolated island, Murnau moves forward with his filming, hoping to keep Schreck at bay until his picture is done. Unfortunately for him, that's easier said than done, particularly since the vampire clearly has a ravenous attraction toward Greta. Nevertheless, Murnau continues shooting, eventually going to extreme measures to capture his story on film.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
When it comes to movies - just like most things in life - there are those who are awful or mediocre at what they do, others who are good, and then those who excel. When a performer completely disappears into his or her character and makes them appear absolutely real, you know you're watching a master at work.

Few outside that profession, however, wonder exactly how such actors and actresses can deliver such uncanny performances, especially when the roles involve unsavory material or behavior that's contradictory to their normal selves. Those inside in the industry, however, know that there are all sorts of methods that performers use to do just that. They range from exhaustively researching their character and mimicking the real person or character type they're portraying to simply making the whole thing up on the fly much like a child might while play acting.

One of the more interesting approaches is that of method acting, pioneered by Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director who died in 1938. Using his technique, performers are supposed to evoke and then tap into feelings and memories of past events that relate to whatever their role necessitates.

For instance, if your latest scene involves the aftermath of a romantic breakup, you should remember back to how such a real-life incident felt in your past, with the belief that such true, dredged up emotions will better your performance. Yet, what if you're supposed to play a space alien and have no outer space experience or references, or are needed to portray a vampire but haven't ever sank your fangs into anyone's neck and/or felt the need or desire to do so?

Well, if you're German director F.W. Murnau and you need someone to play a vampire in your last film, "Nosferatu," but none of your performers have any bloodsucking experience, you do the only logical thing - you hire a real vampire to play the part.

That's the fun "what if" premise fueling novice screenwriter Steven Katz's screenplay for "Shadow of the Vampire." In it, Murnau hires local vampire, Max Schreck, for the lead part, but tells his crew that the performer is the consummate method actor and thus will only film at night and appear only in full character and makeup.

Unofficially based on Bram Stoker's novel, "Dracula," the original 1922 film was the first full-length picture to involve vampires. While a great deal is known about the director, far less is known about the real-life Schreck. Thus, Katz's flight of fancy idea, and both he and director E. Elias Merhige ("Begotten") lovingly pay homage to the classic film as it appears within theirs.

The filmmakers have carefully re-created the techniques and atmosphere of the world of silent filmmaking in the early '20s - with the hand cranked cameras, deliciously campy and melodramatic overacting, and the obvious lack of sound that allowed directors the opportunity to give verbal instructions to their performers - and even go so far as to mimic the look and feel of the original when staging the shooting of its scenes here.

The result is a blast for film buffs to watch, and some fun, "insider" jokes are made at the expense of screenwriters and other film related material. Many may wonder, however, if the film - named for the famous shadow scenes from the original movie that were supposed to inspire more fear than actually seeing the vampire himself -- is accessible to the average moviegoer who's never heard of Murnau, Schreck or their landmark horror film. While it might not be up everyone's alley, the answer is generally yes, even if the screenplay doesn't get as much mileage out of the premise as one might expect.

While the concept of having Max Schreck actually being a vampire is clever, the filmmakers never really flesh that out enough to make it as interesting, engaging or fun as it might have been. Although there are some laughs to be had in relation to that setup, the fact that we know from the onset that Schreck is indeed a vampire steals some of the film's thunder as well as diminishes the viewer's enjoyment of trying to figure out if he really is one or not.

In addition, and not being sure of Merhige's intent, the film isn't particularly frightening or even suspenseful, particularly considering the setup and initial immediate knowledge regarding that character. What does work, however, are the performances, and in particular that of Willem Dafoe as the vampire/actor. No stranger to playing creepy sorts of characters, Dafoe ("The English Patient," "Platoon") - who's decked out in full makeup and creepy, long fingers and nails - is nearly unrecognizable in the part, but delivers a great performance that may very well earn him various award nominations.

John Malkovich ("Being John Malkovich," "Rounders") is also good, if somewhat two-dimensional, as the completion-obsessed director, while Eddie Izzard ("Mystery Men," "The Avengers") and Catherine McCormack ("Dancing at Lughnasa," "Braveheart") deliver fun takes on playing the period performers from the original film. Udo Kier ("Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," "My Own Private Idaho") and Cary Elwes ("Twister," "The Princess Bride") are interesting as some of the men behind the camera, but unfortunately don't get enough material to sink their collective teeth into (pun intended).

While this picture doesn't really delve too deeply into exploring - at least from a historic standpoint - the people involved in the making of that nearly eighty-year old horror classic, and clearly lets the vampire cat out of the bag far too soon, it's a clever, occasionally amusing and somewhat interesting look at and re-creation of the making of the original film. Somewhat slight and not as good as it probably could have been, "Shadow of the Vampire" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 6, 2000 / Posted January 26, 2001


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