October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe
Synopsis: A behind-the-scenes dramatization of the filming of the horror classic Nosferatu. The director (Malkovich) reveals to the crew that he hired a unique and extraordinarily talented method actor named Max Schreck (Dafoe) to play the role of the vampire, Count Orlok. While they film on location in Czechoslovakia he will stay in character the whole time, filming only at night. Unbeknownst to the crew, the director discovered the “actor” in one of the castles in which they will be filming and he is, in fact, an actual vampire. The director has struck a bargain with him to appear in the film, including allowing him to feed on the starring actress in the final scene. Quickly things begin to go wrong during filming, including mysterious accidents and the film’s photographer being drained of blood during a blackout. Despite muttered warnings from locals, the crew still continues to believe that Schreck is merely a very devoted method actor – even when he catches and eats and bat in front of them. The director argues with him in private and clearly can’t control him, but continues on with his plan and obtains a new photographer. The final scenes are to be shot on a isolated island, and Greta, the actress who has been promised to the vampire is flown in for her shots. Too late the remaining crew and Greta realize what’s going and that the vampire has tricked them and cut the cord on a door that was supposed to have flooded the room with sunlight, leaving them confined and at his mercy. They drug Greta with laudanum for the scene, but the vampire feeds on her and then kills the remaining crew as the director films the whole thing. Before the vampire can come after him, locals manage to open the door, letting in sunlight and killing the vampire as the director tells them creepily, “I think we have it”.
Critics are divided over this movie, whether it represents master performances by Malcovich and Defoe or whether it falls victim to its own melodrama. I’m afraid I fall generally into the latter camp. I recognize part of the style of the film is an homage to the very silent horror classics it’s depicting, and so the melodrama is not entirely misplaced. Some of the stylistic touches, such as the heavy score, the use of intertitles, and some of the camera angles, work well to bring us into the world of 1920’s horror. And there’s no denying that Dafoe eerily embodies Schreck, to the point where his duplicated scenes are almost indistinguishable from the original. Malkovich, too, gives a pitch perfect performance as the obsessed film director who will do anything to get his take.
My problem is that there is very little build up to the director’s final madness or the reveal of Schreck as the real Nosferatu. Malkovich’s director is unhinged from the beginning and never has his “actor” under control. We aren’t in the least surprised to find that Schreck is a vampire and grow frustrated with everyone else taking so long to figure it out. This could have worked better if played for comedy, but it’s not that kind of movie and so I found myself getting bored waiting for the inevitable reveal. Malkovitch and Dafoe are full-on from scene one, and while this works well for the end, we’re used to it by that point. Had one or both of them dialed it back a little to start with, the end might have had more impact.
There is something to be said for the feeling of dread engendered by the crazed director’s relentless march towards doom no matter the cost, but the crew and cast follow him too readily. There are some protests, sure, but nothing substantial even once it’s clear something is deeply wrong. Dafoe’s vampire is too inhuman when sitting with the crew, almost more than his character is supposed to be. There’s no chance of mistaking him for a real person, even a method actor, and his make-up free appearance should have made it clear they were dealing with someone other than a committed player, even if they ignore the mutterings of old women and the removal of crucifixes from any room he is to be in.
There’s no doubt that Malkovich and Dafoe are world class performers, and they certainly don’t fail us in this movie. It’s worth watching just to see them play off each other in their one-on-one scenes. And the movie does a faithful job of replicating the feel of the silent movie set. I do have a pet peeve about movies in which everyone is supposedly speaking a foreign language merely speaking in English with an accent, but I suppose they weren’t about to do the whole movie in German. Also while it’s made clear the director is a maniac, everyone else goes along with the sacrifice of Greta a bit too readily – there’s barely even a token protest.
Overall, Shadow of the Vampire is a well made movie featuring some great performances but it shows its cards too soon. There’s never really a question about where it’s going to end up or how it’s going to get there, although it is still interesting enough to watch the process.
Quality: 7 doomed film stars out of 10 – technically proficient but too much, too soon
Enjoyability: 5 happy Nosferatus of 10 – needed more suspense and a slower burn.