F.W. Murnau created a masterpiece when he finished Nosferatu. A stylish silent horror film (one of the first of its kind ever.), the film has influenced thousands and thousands of directors, actors, cinematographers, set designers and screenwriters ever since. However just because it is now considered a masterpiece does not mean that it was easy getting it made. There were problems with investors, Murnau’s insistence that they only film at night and on remote locations, temperamental actresses that demanded everything, people falling sick suddenly and having to leave the picture and oh yeah Max Schreck may or may not have been a vampire.
Mr. Schreck’s strange and otherworldly performance as Nosferatu has elicited several rumors about his real life. Although he had played parts in other silents, and was supposedly a part of a theatre acting group, most people still insist that he was actually a vampire in real life. In The Shadow of the Vampire, the director and screenwriter explore the possibility of this being a true statement.
Willem Dafoe plays Max Schreck with a chameleon like performance. It took me awhile to know who it was underneath that pile of make up and those weird mannerisms. He creeped me out the moment he appeared next to John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau. In contrast it seems like instead of being F.W. Murnau, John Malkovich is a version of F.W. Murnau as seen through his twisted eyes. He has the mannerisms of a John Malkovich character, just set in the turn of the last century. That can be frustrating sometimes, especially alongside William Dafoe’s performance.
The nature of filmmaking is explored quite expertly during the first half of the film. The role of a director for a film is a difficult position to have. You have to charm and yet demand everything that is needed in order to get things accomplished. You have to be ruthless, selfish and dedicated. Although Murnau slips a couple of times in the film, the film illustrates this tenacity quite nicely. Other little touches like exploring the camera the film is being burnt onto, seeing the rough footage in black and white, and seeing the actors go in and out of character at a moment’s notice are great.
However as the vampire plot continues to thicken, the fact that they are making a film seems to be beside the point. I wish they could have been able to keep the vampire aspect as more of a secret than it turns out to be. A is he or is he not plot would have been way more interesting than a no he definitely is plot. As it is now, I want to say it is no better than any other conventional vampire film (except Twilight). It had lots of potential to be something great and squandered it on the lackluster second half. What a shame.