Is E. Elias Merhige's SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE a vampire movie, or is it a
movie about a vampire movie or is it a spoof of a vampire movie? Yes.
And the film, which stars John Malkovich as director F.W. Murnau and an
unrecognizable Willem Dafoe as "actor" Max Schreck, who "plays" the
vampire Count Orlock, is deliciously funny as it takes itself quite
seriously. The clever script by first-time screen writer Steven Katz
manages to eschew gore and rely instead on a wickedly humorous
relationship between Murnau and the vampire, with whom Murnau has made a
In 1921 in Eastern Europe, Murnau is making a movie called NOSFERATU,
starring a real vampire, who is given the stage name of Max Schreck.
Not telling his crew the truth, Murnau, a lab jacket wearing director
whom the crew refers to as Herr Doctor, explains that Schreck is such an
intense method actor that he wears no make-up, works only at night and
is to be called only by his character's name of Count Orlock.
The director approaches the movie as if he were a blend of Sir Isaac
Newton and Cecil B. DeMille. "We are scientifically engaged in the
creation of memory," he lectures those around him. After Murnau enlists
local peasants for supporting roles, his producer, Albin Grau (Udo
Kier), complains that they can't act, but the director sets him
straight. "They don't need to act," Murnau barks at him. "They need to
Actors in silent movies were forced to use exaggerated gestures in order
to compensate for the absence of language. Dafoe, in a performance
worthy of Oscar consideration, has a blast chewing up the scenery in the
silent movie-within-the-movie in which he spends a large portion of his
screen time. With knobby, pencil-like fingers, long, gray fingernails,
dog-eaten ears and a bald head like a small meteorite, Dafoe looks so
funny that you're ready to laugh before he even moves or speaks.
As the crew becomes suspicious, the producer confronts the director,
demanding to know more about their lead actor. On location for his
first scene, the count emerges from a stone hole as the camera rolls.
"Where did you find him really," the producer insists. "In that hole,"
the director replies, matter-of-factly.
The best part of the film is the bombastic chemistry between vampire and
director. "I'd like some make-up," the count squeaks before filming
starts. "Well, you don't get any!" his director chides him as a parent
would a bad boy. In another, Murnau gets angry at his star for eating
important members of the crew, which means that the production company
has to bear the cost of replacing them. "Why don't you eat the script
girl?" Murnau suggests, since she is more expendable. "The script
girl," the count says, pausing to think, "I'll eat her later."
Since in real life F.W. Murnau was a famous director who did indeed make
a film called NOSFERATU, perhaps SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE is more than a
mere comedy. Maybe it all happened just this way. As they say, fact is
stranger than fiction.
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE runs a fast 1:32. It is rated R for some
sexuality, drug content, violence and language and would be acceptable
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes