SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE uses the making of the classic, influential 1922 German silent Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, and vamps forth a deliciously creepy-funny, fictionalized version on the production and the personalities involved. Camp sendups of the director, stars, producer, writer and cameraman make hay for a well-picked cast. Written by Steven Katz, produced by Nicolas Cage, directed by E. Elias Merhige, biting into 2000 with neat make-believe, harvested from a ripe real-life field.
Germany, 1921. Flamboyant director F.W. Murnau is so driven to finish his unauthorized version of “Dracula” that he not only keeps his cast and crew in the dark (figurative and literal) about the schedule and who or whatever the mystery man is he’s hired to play ‘Count Orlok’, he’s promised that way-beyond-odd fellow a ghastly treat in return for participating. ‘Weird’ isn’t sufficient.
Taking the bare bones of the real deal and actual characters and refashioning them for a baroque comic fantasy, the literate and witty script, inventive direction and inspired cast deliver a lights-out, giggle-inducing gem. John Malkovich gets rein to run batty with his interpretation of the obsessed, unhinged (per the script, not factually) Murnau, and Catherine McCormack (who should have been a bigger star) is delightfully campy as actress (and dessert treat) Greta Schroeder.
Dominating all is a magnificently bizarre Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck. In real life Schreck (1879-1936) was a bit offbeat, but in the movie Dafoe’s Max is every bit as insane as a thing called Nosferatu would be, and twice as funny. Dafoe brilliantly plays it absolutely straight, making it all the creepier and more amusing. In a career studded with daring, memorably outlandish roles, this one’s at the top of the pack. He was justly Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actor, and the wonderful makeup he was provided with by Ann Buchanan also went up for a trophy. *
The only debit (a minor carp) comes right at the start, in a five-minute-long credit sequence. With the camera slowly moving in and away from stylized drawings, accompanied by Dan Jones dreamy but languid music, you’re less captivated than drowsy before it finally arrives at ‘Directed by’; it’s the only misstep in the film.
Produced for $8,000,000, with box office results of $11,155,000, the keen supporting cast features Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes and John Aden Gillet. The fun runs 92 minutes; just keep a pin handy for the first five.
* Another great purveyor of wracked intensity, Benicio Del Toro, got the Supporting Actor Oscar for Traffic. Fine work, and we’d never slight Del Toro, but Dafoe’s snorting, nail-clicking ghoul really slayed it.