Okay, this film is a clever one. When the film Nosferatu, which I reviewed last week, came out in 1921, the make-up and scariness of the vampire Count Orlok in the movie was like nothing that had ever been seen in film before. Shadow of the Vampire is a fictional take on the filming of Nosferatu, and takes the conceit that the reason for Orlok’s realism is because actor Max Schreck, who played Count Orlok, actually was a vampire.
We join director Friedrich W. Murnau and his cast and crew as they are filming early soundstage scenes in Berlin for his upcoming Nosferatu picture. However, much of the filming is going to be done on location in Slovakia, and the crew is concerned because Murnau has provided them hardly any information on where they will be or what they will be doing. What’s more, nobody has seen this fellow Max Schreck or knows anything about him, and shouldn’t they have met the movie’s main villain by this point? Murnau gathers everybody after a day of shooting and explains that Schreck practices an acting method where he gets deep into his characters. Schreck has already been in Slovakia for weeks preparing, and will remain in character throughout their time there. It’s simply part of his method, and nobody should worry about it.
The next evening, they arrive at the inn in rural Slovakia where they will be staying and doing some of the shots. As they do the filming in the inn and at the nearby castle, the cameraman becomes faint and ill, but pushes himself for the sake of the picture, which is on a strict schedule. When the cast and crew finally meet Schreck, he is really, really into the character, so much so that it’s kind of frightening. Plus, why is Murnau traveling with those bottles of blood in his trunk?
The cameraman becomes so ill that Murnau has to travel back to Berlin to find a new one, and while he’s gone, some of the other, less vital, members of the crew start falling ill or disappearing. The rest start to suspect that perhaps Schreck is, shall we say, not so much acting as simply being himself. But when they finish fliming in Slovakia and fly to the island of Heligoland in the North Sea for the final shots, only to find there is no fuel left for getting off the island, there’s no point in Schreck pretending any more, and they discover they are trapped with a true vampire, and nowhere to hide. The only thing left to do is to finish making the movie, assuming anybody survives to film it….
This was perfect to watch just a week after the film it’s riffing off of, and just a really fascinating movie. Let’s see how the movie does when I plug it in to my rubric below.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Story/Plot/Characters— With Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich, not to mention Cary Elwes and Eddie Izard, this is probably the best cast assembled for a horror film since Silence of the Lambs. No surprise the acting is excellent, and a superb script gives them a lot to work with. The plot is clever, the dialogue funny and horrific by turns. Full points for this one. (4 points)
Special Effects–Pulls off a very interesting stunt—how to make 1920s special effects seem both dated but completely real at the same time. A scene when Orlok eats a bat that he’s caught is especially gruesome. Not an especially special effects heavy movie, but what’s present is done expertly. (1.5 points)
Scariness— I’m afraid the very cleverness of the film works against it a bit here. A lot of scenes come off as ironic rather than frightening. Still, it has its share of chilling moments. I especially liked one sad but chilling scene when Count Orlok describes his feelings at reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the surprising reason he sympathized with the fictional Dracula. (1.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— Traveling from Berlin to Slovakia to Heligoland in the 1920s. Seeing the “actual” Slovakia recreated from the Nosferatu movie is somehow as eerie as it was in the original silent movie. Dafoe’s version of Max Schreck has to be one of the weirdest, freakiest portrayals ever. Full points for atmosphere and freakiness. (2 points)
Total=9 points (Best Horror Movies Ever)
Our second addition of the season to the Best Horror Movies Ever category!
I love this movie and it was a shame Willem Dafoe didn’t win the Oscar for this.
Okay, let’s see who actually won (nomination was for Best Supporting Actor)–Benicio del Toro in Traffic. Yeah, definitely should’ve gone to Dafoe. But the Academy has a bias against horror movies. Look at the one that one Best Picture that year–Gladiator! And Shadow of the Vampire not even nominated!
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