Summary: A series of misfortunes and strange occurrences befall the production of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.
Review: If nothing else, one has to get Shadow of the Vampire points for originality. Given its R-rating and oddball premise, it’s a miracle that this got made in the first place; it’s the kind of idiosyncratic material that no major studio would touch nowadays. I wish I could say it was a smashing success, but sadly it doesn’t quite achieve that status.
Visionary German filmmaker F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich), after being denied the rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, decides to alter the story just enough to avoid litigation. The result is Nosferatu, a script that’s an adaptation of the classic novel in all but name. When shooting on location in Czechoslovakia, Murnau introduces his crew to Max Schreck, the “actor” playing the part of the vampire. Schreck, he informs them, will be in full makeup and costume for the duration of the shoot, never breaking character. But when crewmembers begin to take ill and – in some cases – die mysteriously, the survivors begin to suspect Schreck.
The makers of Shadow of the Vampire clearly respect the source material, painstakingly recreating scenes from Nosferatu and giving us a surreal depiction of the off-camera drama. Malkovich is a hoot as Murnau, all pretentious ego as the director who puts his movie above all else, including the safety of those around him. Dafoe, meanwhile, is devilishly good as Schreck, honoring his namesake’s performance while at the same time making it his own.
For its first half, the movie is effortlessly enjoyable, keeping us on our toes by obscuring Schreck’s exact origins and painting an evocative portrait of its time period. It’s too bad, then, that the second half grinds to a repetitive crawl. The plot barely moves forward as the movie dutifully chronicles shoot after shoot, with nothing ever really escalating. Rather ironically for a vampire movie, there’s not much in the way of stakes.
The Verdict: It’s hardly consistent, but Shadow of the Vampire has enough good points (including a perfectly-judged ending) to warrant a recommendation. I give it six-and-a half thirsty thespians out of ten.