Anyone with the slightest pretension to cinema knows about Nosferatu. The 1922 film was the first vampire film ever, a masterpiece of German expressionism, yadda-yadda... and in the recent bandwagon of making movies about movies comes Shadow of the Vampire, about Nosferatu, complete with a little twist. Starring John Malkovich as the director F.W. Murnau, and Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, Shadow of the Vampire posits what if Schreck (the actor) had really been a vampire in real life. It's an interesting premise, which the film presents with some misguided execution. But luckily (and appropriately for the guy who played Jesus), Willem Dafoe saves Shadow from all its sins.
To put it bluntly, scenery is chewed. No character is taken to anything but an overtheatrical cut-out. For instance, Cary Elwes is irksomely dashing, far more than any cameraman and minor supporting character has any right to be. Catherine McCormick's Greta Schroeder is a bitch and takes morphine, because she's a diva, of course... Eddie Izzard's incredible facial expressions, used so well in his stand-up comedy, perfectly portray the rather bad actor Gustav von Wangerheim, with all the non-subtlety the silent film required, and yet unfortunately he's only slightly more subdued when playing the fellow in 'real life.' And whenever Malkovich isn't gnawing away on backdrops in order to show Murnau's obsession with film, he simply gums it by making rather pretentious statements about the nature of film.
It's partially the fault of the actors, and partially the film's fault too. It's the kind of flick which shows Murnau's obsession for making the film by having him run around a lot yelling, "This is my film!" so that other characters have to say, "Well, this is hardly your film anymore," to create tension.
Malkovich's Murnau ignores brutal deaths so that his film can be completed, which feels more than a little forced. The story moves at too brisk a pace, designed to keep all its little character developments afloat, making sure everyone gets a chance to ham it up, resulting in almost no satisfying characters. As a result, the actors get props to illustrate the characters; for instance, drugs show that they're troubled. Nothing is used naturally in the slightest; making Shadow of the Vampire feel non-organic, and a little sophomoric.
It's not that the film doesn't have its good points. Second-time director E. Elias Merhige (Begotten) uses some nifty sets and camerawork, such as fading from color to black and white, or vice versa, to show the transition from the reality of the film to the film Nosferatu.
Any film buff will have a field day with Shadow of the Vampire; it does an outstanding job of recreating scenes and shots from Murnau's original, with wonderful silent film-styled performances to boot. The slightly grainy film stock and that keeps it looking old and moody. But where melodrama would have served well, Merhige shot right past into overdrama.
It's for a reason: Merhige wants to question the boundaries of reality and cinema, the way so many movies about movies do. The exaggerated acting, characters and gestures (and perhaps, the plot as well) of the actors is mean to replicate the exaggerated performances of the silent film oeuvre, again, practically screaming, "Oooh! The reality of the film and the film of the film are very similar! Whaddya think of that! Ooh!"
Unfortunately, Merhige has screwed up the scale. The regular characters and excessive performances are too extreme to be believable as reality, so the film never really does cross the line, so to speak. It ends up being a movie about zany over-actors making a movie in a time in which movies included zany overacting. Actually, since the characters don't speak when they're being filmed by Murnau, the film world is actually a little more understated, in that the actors' assaults are limited by not being able to overdo their lines, because they have none.
But there is one very good reason why anyone with that slight pretension to cinema should shell out the dough to see this film, and that is Willem Dafoe. Willem Dafoe's performance makes up for every fault of this film. Willem Dafoe's Schreck is the best acting of the year, and as far as performances of heavily-made-up horror movie stars go, Dafoe even beats out Martin Landau's Oscar-winning Bela Lugosi for sheer brilliance.
Landau got his Oscar for being the reality of the waning Bela Lugosi, for imbuing the faded legend with sadness and pride and a rather generous morphine addiction. Dafoe's got none of that. The only thing anybody knows about Max Schreck is that an early biographer of Murnau called him "an actor of no distinction," and that his name curiously means "shriek" in German.
Thus, Dafoe brings absolutely no verisimilitude to the role. And while Malkovich is running about trying to look crazed over the making of Nosferatu, Dafoe's Schreck is simply the epitome of a movie image. Every gesture is extreme and perfect. Every word is grunted and hissed and weaseled out of his fanged mouth. Schreck is hilarious and creepy, simultaneously, constantly wanting no more than blood, yet timid enough to sit through Murnau's filming to get it. Even a scene in which Schreck gets drunk on schnapps and starts telling his life story (which amounts to "my wife did it") is simplistic enough to feel like a movie origin, not some ridiculous, unwarranted dimension to a ridiculous character. And then Schreck drinks a bat. Hilarious and horrible, all at once.
The result is a living, breathing cartoon, brought alive by Dafoe's consummate performance. To take this metaphor well past its allotted life, by Dafoe's amazing skill Schreck has more life than the rest of the lot.
The movie, in toto, is a little misguided, very pretty, but done with care. It's an honest attempt at brilliance. It's not. But it's a great movie because of Dafoe and the character of Schreck; everything Merhige was trying to suggest and raise with his film and missed, Dafoe does single-handedly with every gesture and hiss. If you can stand a little ham with one of the best performances of the last decade, definitely go. Simply keep your eyes on Dafoe. He'll be the one drinking the bat.