SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE directed by E. Elias Merhige, written by Stephen Katz, produced by Nicolas Cage and Jeff Levine, with John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack and Cary Elwes. 92 minutes. A Lions Gate production. Opens Friday (January 26). Rating: NN
john malkovich and willem dafoe in the same movie? There's so much ham here that Jewish filmgoers may want to check with their rabbis on the dietary implications of seeing Shadow Of The Vampire. At the end of a particularly gruelling scene, one half expects Dafoe to leap up and cry, à la Jon Lovitz, "Acting!" Scenarist Stephen Katz and director Elias Merhige have taken an historical what-if as their premise. What if Max Schreck (Dafoe), hired by F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) to play the vampire in the 1922 film Nosferatu, had really been a vampire?
This is the launching pad for a laboured metaphysical inquiry into the responsibility of the artist. Does he owe it to his art to be faithful to his vision even if his star is slowly exsanguinating his staff? Big whoop.
Apparently, they didn't put a whole bunch of thought into this philosophical question, because the film's actual running time is 80 minutes. The opening and closing credits each run about six minutes, and the opening credits are played over a series of art deco graphics.
Merhige, whose previous work is an 80-minute "non-narrative" film called Begotten, seems more interested in recreating scenes from Nosferatu and doing discrete wallows in the milder forms of Weimar decadence than in actually telling a story. He's like a less interesting version of Guy Maddin.
People are chatting up Willem Dafoe for a supporting-actor Oscar for his performance as Schreck, but it's a bit of one-note grotesquerie enhanced by a lot of latex. Mind you, looking at this film, it's easy to see why Spiderman's producers decided to cast Dafoe as the Green Goblin.
Shadow Of The Vampire premiered in its perfect venue, the Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. Nowhere else could it have found so many film geeks to drool over its movie-history meshugass.
I've yet to see any of my colleagues call the film on its oddest film-history gaffe. Udo Kier, playing producer/art director Albin Grau, announces to the press that Murnau is Germany's greatest director, worthy of comparison with Griffith and Eisenstein. Who's this Eisenstein chap? It certainly can't be Sergei Eisenstein, the director of Battleship Potemkin. Shadow Of The Vampire is set in 1921, when Eisenstein was working as a set designer and director at the Moscow Proletkult Theatre, four years away from directing Strike and Potemkin.