Perhaps one of the most neglected of the early cinema's masters
   is F.W. Murnau, whose transcended German Expressionism and worked
   in such a variety of genres that he cannot be pigeonholed easily. While
   
The Last Laugh and Sunrise are arguably his masterpieces, the director
   remained known, if at all, for his equally memorable 1922 horror film
   
Nosferatu. Now Lions Gate, the company that was behind
   
Gods and Monsters (another look at partially forgotten filmmaker,
   James Whale), has released
Shadow of the Vampire, a highly
   fictionalized, but quite entertaining, behind-the-scenes look at the
   filming of
Nosferatu.

           With a witty script by Steven Katz (making his debut) and fine
   direction by E Elias Merhige,
Shadow of the Vampire riffs on the ideas
   of Method acting, film acting versus stage acting, the power of the
   director, and the legend of the Undead. Granted, in the hands of lesser
   talents, this material could easily have devolved into parody at best or
   a bad comedy sketch at worst. Instead, with the aid of a resourceful
   cast, some intriguing camerawork, and the power of imagination, the
   film emerges as one of the year's nicest surprises.

           From its opening credit sequence that calls to mind Art Deco
   design and the lost art of silent film title cards,
Shadow of the Vampire
   establishes its tone. It is both a witty send-up and an affectionate
   homage to the pioneers of filmmaking. Murnau, as embodied by John
   Malkovich in one of his now patented effete performances, is both
   despot and prophet. The script paints Murnau as something of a
   martinet, who is all consumed by his art -- even to the point that he
   is willing to sacrifice innocent victims to realize his vision. Yet, that
   same inspired vision is one that pushes the envelope. Reportedly
   Murnau wished to turn Bram Stoker's popular novel
Dracula into a
   motion picture but Stoker's widow would not grant the rights. Being
   resourceful, Murnau and his writer Henrik Galeen (John Aden Gillet)
   simply make cosmetic changes to the plot and write their own version
   called
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens or Nosferatu, a
   Symphony of Terror
. What this movie suggests is that rather than
   find an actor to play the title character, Murnau went out and hired
   an actual vampire whom he dubbed Max Schreck (portrayed with
   gusto in the movie by Willem Dafoe). In reality Schreck was a noted
   figure who had trained with Max Reinhardt and went on to appear in
   other movies. But in both real life and reel life, Schreck came to be
   known for his indelible performance as the rodent-like title character
   in Murnau's vampire film.

           Merhige nicely captures the chaos of a film shoot in a manner
   that rivals the touchstone on that subject, Francois Truffaut's
   
Day for Night. Here are the petty jealousies, the onset romances,
   the temperaments of the talent, all presented in matter-of-fact fashion
   and presided over by Murnau. The recreation of period filmmaking is
   lovingly accomplished and there are amazing recreations of footage
   of
Nosferatu. The movie shifts seamlessly from the footage of the
   film-within-the-film to that of
Shadow of the Vampire and it is both
   a visual treat and a technologically fascinating achievement. (Special
   mention has to go to cinematographer Lou Bogue.)

           As noted, Malkovich captures the spirit of the man, but his
   German accent is shaky, coming and going from scene to scene
   (perhaps a minor quibble, but as it is noticeable). Dafoe is nothing
   short of brilliant as the centuries old vampire who is more
   temperamental than any movie star. There are many engaging and
   humorous scenes of banter between Schreck and Murnau which
   make the tyrannical director begins to realize that he does not have
   as much power as he would like.

           Other cast members of note are Udo Kier as the producer and
   designer Albin Grau who begins to question Murnau's sanity, Cary
   Elwes as the dashing cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, Catherine
   McCormack as the alluring actress unwittingly used as bait for the
   vampire and John Aden Gillet as the screenwriter Henrik Galeen.
   Eddie Izzard as Gustav von Wangerheim has the unenviable task
   of playing a bad actor and that he succeeds so well is a tribute to
   his own gifts.

           My only hesitation in praising Shadow of the Vampire stems
   from the power of entertainment. Despite the relative intelligence of
   the moviegoing public, many seem to believe what they see is "real."
   Witness those who felt that Oliver Stone's version of history in
JFK
   was true. It's particularly disconcerting when real figures are
   portrayed in a fictionalized context: there was even some of that
   in
Gods and Monsters. The power of the media, particularly film
   (which ironically is a theme of the very film I'm criticizing) may lead
   some to believe that
Shadow of the Vampire is a true story,
   particularly as so little is known about many of those involved.
   That would be an insult to those talents who participated in the
   making of 1922's
Nosferatu as well as to those who have crafted
   this wonderfully enjoyable pastiche.



           Rating:                  B+
           MPAA Rating:         R for some sexuality, drug content,
                                                violence and language
           Running time:        92 mins.
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE