January 4, 2018
In the years after the writer’s passing, Bram Stoker’s estate was very protective of his intellectual property. So, in 1922, when German expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau was denied the rights to do an adaptation of Dracula, he did one anyway – but he had to change the name of his lead character from Count Dracula to Count Orlok, and had to refer to the count as a Nosferatu instead of a Vampire. And the silent classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror was born. More than seventy-five years later, in the year 2000, music video director E. Elias Merhige (who, appropriately enough, worked with Marilyn Manson, among others) made a movie about the making of Nosferatu called Shadow of the Vampire.
Shadow of the Vampire begins with Murnau (John Malkovich from Con Air and Warm Bodies) setting out with the objective of making the most authentic vampire movie ever filmed. He casts a strange actor named Max Schreck (The Florida Project’s Willem Dafoe) as Count Orlok, and explains to his cast and crew that Schreck is a method actor and will only appear in character for the entirety of the shoot. At first, everyone is only a little weirded out by the strange actor, but when cast and crew members wind up being attacked and wounded on set, they all start to wonder if Murnau’s “method actor” is actually a vampire after all.
Written by Steven Katz (Wind Chill), the screenplay for Shadow of the Vampire is, of course, a highly speculative account of the making of Nosferatu. Although he was mysterious, there was no evidence that the real Max Schreck was nearly as creepy during filming, but Merhige played up the angle that he could have, in fact, been a vampire in real life. In a modern world filled with method actors like Lincoln’s Daniel Day-Lewis and The Comedian’s Robert De Niro, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Who’s to say Christian Bale didn’t really kill a person or two while shooting American Psycho?
At the core of Shadow of the Vampire is the give-and-take performances of John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe. The two characters serve as kind of a yin and yang, and the performances reflect that, with Malkovich playing the straight man and taking everything very seriously while Dafoe gets to camp it up portraying the creepy vampire. Malkovich’s Murnau is every bit as “method” as Dafoe’s Schreck/Orlok, and by the end, the audience is left wondering which is really the antagonist of the film. No matter who is the hero and who is the villain, Malkovich and Dafoe both play off of and feed off of each other. Each needs the other to give an effective performance, and neither actor lets the other down.
Besides being a pretty effective horror/drama, Shadow of the Vampire also functions as a glimpse into the early world of feature filmmaking. Murnau and his crew wear goggles during shooting that allow them to more closely see what the camera is capturing. The cameras themselves are hand-cranked, and because Nosferatu is a silent movie, Murnau is able to shout direction to his actors while rolling – there is no “quiet on the set” in F.W. Murnau’s world. That’s the way it was done in the teens and twenties, and the audience gets to have a fun little look back at cinematic history.
The photography in Shadow of the Vampire is also a nostalgic peek at days gone by. Shot by first-time cinematographer Lou Bogue (who worked as a cameraman and lighting technician for Stanley Kubrick on movies like A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining), the normal photography for the film is, well, normal, aside from being as dark and mysterious as a movie about the making of a German expressionist film needs to be. Where the look of the film gets creative is when the audience sees what is being shot by Murnau. The images turn to black and white, irregularly speeded nickel-reel type of stuff, complete with silent-movie style iris shots and, in places, title cards to explain missing exposition. It’s a cool reminder that the movie is, in fact, about the making of a silent movie classic.
Another fun fact about Shadow of the Vampire deals with how funding for the project was secured. The film was produced by Saturn Films, a new startup production company founded by actor Nicolas Cage (Joe, Trespass). Reportedly, some of the money was raised through donations from users of the Hollywood Stock Exchange web site, with each donor being given a “virtual producer” credit on the film’s DVD release. Made in the days before GoFundMe and IndieGoGo, Shadow of the Vampire may be the first crowd-funded movie in history.
There are plenty of speculative making-of movies in the world, and it’s up to the viewer to decide how realistic they may be (I’d love to think that The Disaster Artist happened exactly as it does in the film). Shadow of the Vampire is obviously fictionalized, but let’s still keep that a secret. Max Schreck makes a great vampire, both onscreen and off.