HCF REWIND NO. 158: SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME:88 min
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1921, German director Frederich Wilhelm Murnau takes his cast and crew on location in Czechoslovakia to shoot Nosferatu, an unauthorised version of Dracula. Murnau keeps his team in the dark about their schedule and the actor playing the vampire Count Orlok. He appears to be an obscure German theatre performer named Max Schreck. To involve himself fully in his role, Schreck will only appear among the cast and crew in make-up and will never break character. Murnau’s team travels to an inn where Murnau removes crucifixes around the inn, the cameraman falls into a strange, hypnotic state, Gustav discovers a bottle of blood amongst the team’s food supplies, and Murnau delivers a caged ferret to a cellar in the middle of the night….
Hype concerning films is nothing new. During the production of Nosferatu, the director F.W. Murnau spread rumours about Max Schreck, who played Count Orlok the Dracula substitute in the film, about him actually being a vampire. A respected actor, though one with a particular skill in playing grotesque and odd characters, he was apparently a loner with a strange sense of humour, but was of course not a vampire. He was even happily married. Shadow Of The Vampire doesn’t portray Schreck as he actually was. Instead it decides to ‘print the legend, not the truth’, and go along with the idea that he was a vampire. This achieves somewhat awkward results. Shadow Of The Vampire is a generally respected film, but it didn’t entirely work for me. As a detailing of how one of the seminal horror films was made, it’s fascinating and presents certain things with great accuracy, but this accuracy jars with the total fantasy of everything else, with not just Schreck but Murnau and others presented in a totally different manner to what they were actually like. Murnau is presented as your typical tyrannical director for whom to price is too high in the creation of art. He’s also straight, which would have been news to the real Murnau.
The original title was actually Burned To Light and both Steven Katz’s screenplay and the first cut of the film were very different from what ended up on the screen. Most notably, there was more detail about Schreck’s background. Murnau’s girlfriend turns out to be the vampire who turned Max hundreds of years ago and gets burned to death. This was all omitted and Schreck’s vampiric origins only mentioned obliquely, a good decision. We don’t even see much vampirism, and many of Willem Dafoe’s best scenes as Schreck are when he is alone or just talking about what it is like to be a vampire. One especially poignant moment has him alone with the cinematic apparatus and, cranking the projector by hand, looks at the one thing he wants to see a second time above all else but can’t properly without dying – a sunrise. Another one has him complain how Bram Stoker’s book has misinterpreted the hell of his existence. There is also some fine dark humour throughout, often revolving around Schreck’s inability to control his vampiric urges and causing the production much trouble, such as having to get a new cinematographer. This all the better for being understated, with often Schreck saying something that is amusing such as “I’ll eat her later” and somebody else replying with immense seriousness. Sadly there isn’t really any tension in the film though.
Shadow Of The Vampire has a striking title sequence where we are shown lots of grotesque paintings. Do they represent Schreck’s past, when he was once a ruler in charge of a kingdom? They seem to be showing the new trampling over the old. Together with Dan Jones’s sinister music, this gets the film off to a fine start. Throughout it has a very artistic look and feel to it, Lou Bogue’s photography giving most shots a touch of sepia and the segues from the colour film to the black and white recreations of Nosferatu scenes and back again very well managed. These recreations are generally done very well but there are some careless technical details that let the side down, like this vampire not having a reflection while Murnau’s vampire did, and a stake which certainly did not appear in Murnau’s climax. Dafoe doesn’t look that much like Schreck, and even if some of that is due to their heads having different shapes, other things differ like the size of the ears. Dafoe’s much-praised performance seems a little ‘off’ to me. He’s interesting to watch, but sometimes his mannerisms and expressions, like an extreme frown, tend to come across as more comical than they should. Meanwhile John Malkovitch convinces as an obsessive director, but doesn’t really pull off the German accent.
Shadow Of The Vampire is constantly intriguing, but doesn’t really hit the mark and falls apart especially in its contrived climax. Okay, it’s a fantasy and not meant to be realistic, but I didn’t buy what was happening, which means it wasn’t really working for me. There’s a lot to enjoy, including a surprising restrained Udo Kier [though he isn’t playing a vampire this time], nice little touches throughout like the use of silent film-style title cards, and it does make some sound points, such as the fact that a movie director can be a far worse monster then a vampire. But isn’t there something distasteful about the way it makes up almost everything? Fantasy re-tellings of history only really come off, and are in my opinion only acceptable, when they work within the known facts. Shadow Of The Vampire doesn’t bother doing that at all, and it also comes across as something of an insult to Schreck. For me, the most interesting thing about the man is that Nosferatu is the only film of his that has survived. You can do a good film about that and invent a hell of a lot of fantasy without ignoring stuff that really happened.