Shadow of the Vampire, a handsomely mounted, mordantly comic, impeccably acted period thriller, reimagines the filming of F. W. Murnau's seminal 1922 classic Nosferatu, in which German actor Max Schreck established himself as an iconic Dracul prototype (though his creature is hardly the romantic specter of the Bram Stoker's variety). The conceit of this new film, directed by Elias Merhige, is that Schreck himself was in fact a bloodsucker, and his performance not an act, but a scripted reality.
In chronicling the troubled shoot of Nosferatu, Shadow pits its leering title figure (played with uncanny verisimilitude by Willem Dafoe, the second-strangest actor in film) against the mincing, ruthless egoist Murnau (John Malkovich, the strangest actor in film). The two are locked in complicity: In exchange for Schreck's other-worldly cachet, Murnau has bartered the life of his leading lady, Greta (Catherine McCormack). But nature-or supernature, as it were-complicates the arrangement, as Schreck dips into the arteries of crew members (the cinematographer is the first to go), tests the producers' resolve and ultimately resets the parameters of Murnau's obsessive, inhuman perfectionism.
Steven Katz's script, which braids its double-tiered narrative with diabolical wit, cleverly equates the monstrous narcissism of the vampire-who saps the life of others to sustain his own existence beyond the boundaries of reason and necessity, and whose rotting exterior fails to incriminate him in mirrors-with the storied arrogance of movie divas. Schreck, the plum of Murnau's production, is merely more carnal in his demands than his latter-day mortal counterparts (does Val Kilmer recoil from the crucifix?). And while Merhige recreates actual scenes from Nosferatu with a precision Murnau himself would have applauded, the film-within-a-film self-awareness never boils into preciousness or dull docudrama, since Schreck's own behavior makes for such morbidly compelling stuff. Still, the film is occasionally undermined by a stilted pace best described as European.
Dafoe, the wild-eyed loose cannon best known to artier audiences as the bitter expatriate in The English Patient, effortlessly conveys Schreck's fearsome vanity. But beneath the decayed dignity of his performance, there course tides of loneliness and tender, time-honed misery-sentiments alien, ironically, to the full-blooded Murnau. Malkovich demonstrated in his eponymous film of last year that he's not without a sense of humor, and his Murnau panders to neither his crew nor the audience; by the time the movie uncorks its wicked finale, he seems more the predator than his deathless star. The two actors spar with cagey intensity, each prideful, each an aesthete, each with much at stake-you half-expect Christopher Walken to walk in and complete this triumvirate of weird. And they're surrounded by a panoply of fine performers, among them British alt-comic Eddie Izzard, German character actor Udo Kier and an unusually alert Cary Elwes (a survivor of Francis Ford Coppola's lush, sexy, but incoherent Bram Stoker's Dracula).
Shadow of the Vampire is droll, elegant and confidently arch-and the quirkiest monster movie since well before Coppola's 1992 genre foray. May it feast on Snatch and Save the Last Dance.
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