Monday, January 25, 2010

“Go ahead! Eat the writer! That will leave you explaining how your character gets to Bremen!”

And here you were thinking we were done with vampires for a while. NOT A CHANCE! 2000 brought Shadow of the Vampire an interesting mock-biopic (Bio-mock? Mockuography?) of F.W. Murnau and the making of Nosferatu, where the conceit is that Max Schreck’s performance was so convincing because he actually was a vampire, and was feeding on the cast and crew through the production of the movie. Strange premise? Sure. Interesting result? You betcha.

After an atmospheric, Art Nouveau-style opening credits that feel like they drag on for ten minutes, we get to that swingin’ hotbed of zany lasciviousness of the early 1920s; Germany. Well, the film scene was lascivious at least. There, big shot auteur F.W. Murnau assembles his cast & crew to film an adaptation of Dracula, except that they haven’t secured the rights, so they’ve got to change the name for legal protection. Murnau then takes his crew to Eastern Europe for location scenes and finally introduces them to the star of the picture, “method actor” Max Shreck, who is going to remain in-character for the duration of the shoot. This will be easy, since he really is a vampire. Things go well at first, but, well, vampire on the set means people start getting eaten. What follows is an interesting mix of period drama, hilarity, pathos, and a disturbing look at just how far someone is willing to go to capture art on film.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau: John Malkovich plays F.W. Murnau as a dictatorial, ego-driven director whose concern with capturing “art” on film supersedes the well-being of his fellow human beings on his crew. At first this gets played for dark laughs as we see his complete disregard for what the vampire is doing to some of his crew, but his obsessions (and drug use) deteriorate the world around him and leads the movie into some pretty disturbing territory by the end.

Albin Grau: Udo Kier plays the producer of the film, the guy paying for the project and ostensibly in charge, but he ends up being second fiddle to Murnau’s vision.

Greta Shroeder: Catherine McCormack plays the diva-like actress who is Murnau’s star. A temperamental party girl with a drug problem, Murnau uses her as an unwitting bargaining chip to keep Shreck from flipping out and murdering everyone.

Fritz Wagner: Cary Elwes plays a cameraman who comes on to replace camera man Wolfgang Mueller (Ronan Vibert) after the latter turned into a vampire’s sippy cup. Fritz is a boozing, partying, womanizing pilot who storms onto the set and is basically awesome, but he’s a late addition to the filming of Nosferatu and doesn’t really do a whole lot.

Gustav von Wangenheim: Eddie Izzard plays the lead actor of Nosferatu, and while he doesn’t really get a whole lot of development, he does show up in a lot of the “Movie-within-a-movie” stuff where shots from the silent film are recreated. For what it is, Izzard gives a great performance, and his reaction to Shreck’s first appearance is priceless.

Max Shreck: Willem Dafoe as an ancient vampire-playing-a-method-actor-playing-a-vampire is the reason to watch this. The makeup work is excellent and makes it difficult to recognize Dafoe’s face, and he turns in an incredibly nuanced performance as he shifts between a pathetic old geezer of a vampire to a murderous monster that preys on the helpless, and he makes both believable. Some of the greatest moments in the film are where he is just talking, like when he’s telling the producer and scriptwriter his reaction to reading Dracula. An incredibly badass performance.

E. Elias Merhige goes for a very moody and shadowy look for the period at most times, which is appropriate, this being a horror movie, more or less. However, where the movie is probably at its best is when its recreating shots from the original Nosferatu. Those are filmed in that same kind of grainy black and white and blend a self-aware hilarity as well as respectful homage to the silent film genre.

The script by Steven Katz is one hell of an interesting story. Now, this is about as far removed from biography as you can get (Shreck wasn’t a vampire and most of the crew didn’t die during the production), but that’s not the point. It’s a really interesting character drama that by the end of the film asks you who the real soulless monster is, the decrepit vampire or the director that brought him in.

The score by Dan Jones is appropriately moody and fit’s the period. It blends well into the picture as a whole.

Shadow of the Vampire is an unusual film that probably isn’t for everybody because in the end, its not really a comedy or a horror movie in broad terms. It’s a character drama that, like most films about making films, is ultimately about the human reasons for and the cost of pursuing an artistic vision. At times it probably does get a little too clever for its own good, but ultimately it’s a fascinating, original picture with a good indie film vibe to it, and worth checking out.

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