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Overall Rating

Awesome: 24.64%
Worth A Look47.1%
Average: 14.49%
Pretty Bad: 12.32%
Total Crap: 1.45%

11 reviews, 72 user ratings

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Shadow of the Vampire
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by Rob Gonsalves

2 stars

"Shadow of the Vampire" is a provocative idea squandered. It asks one of those irresistible what-if questions: What if the mysterious actor Max Schreck, known today solely for his title role in F.W. Murnau's 1922 vampire masterpiece "Nosferatu," was a real vampire?

Director E. Elias Merhige (who made the unbearably pretentious Begotten) and screenwriter Steven Katz run with the notion that not much is known about Schreck, so -- who knows, maybe he was a vampire. Well, not much is known about him, but that doesn't mean nothing is known about him. A bit of history; this won't take long.

Film scholars usually describe Schreck as a "versatile" actor. He did a lot of movies and even more work on the stage. Nosferatu was neither his first film nor his last; he even worked again with Murnau, in the 1924 comedy The Finances of the Grand Duke. He died in 1936 (outliving Murnau by five years), not at the end of a stake or seared by sunlight, but of a mundane heart attack. End of history lesson; now let's concentrate on why Shadow of the Vampire is a failure.

Even if we knew the above facts, why wouldn't we be inclined to let talented filmmakers have fun with the conceit of Schreck as an actual vampire lurking in the shadows of Murnau's set? Well, the filmmakers aren't talented -- the pace is leaden, the actors aside from the two scenery-chewing leads are neglected, the photography (by Lou Bogue) employs some of the most punishingly, pointlessly dark lighting I've ever not seen, the script is flat and obvious -- and they're not having fun. They have one idea -- that Murnau the film-pioneer taskmaster was every bit as much a bloodsucker as his undead protagonist -- and it's a tired one.

Murnau (played by John Malkovich as the sort of irritable, pompous artiste you want to kick in the pants) tells his wary cast and crew that his star is a Method actor, "a student of Stanislavsky" who lives his roles. But Schreck (Willem Dafoe), we're given to understand, is in reality a vampire Murnau found somewhere and wants to capture on film "for posterity and science." Uh, I thought vampires don't show up in photographs (and on celluloid), but never mind.

Schreck creeps around, draining the film's first cinematographer, so that Murnau has to go and find a replacement, Fritz Arno Wagner (Cary Elwes), a goofy frat-boy type who doesn't seem capable of devising some of horror cinema's most lasting images. There's tension on the set. Schreck freaks everyone out. The film's producer (Udo Kier, stranded with little to do besides worrying) worries. The leading lady (Catherine McCormack) is being groomed for Schreck's fangs -- his payment for acting in Murnau's shadowplay. The leading man (Eddie Izzard) is scared of Schreck. Murnau keeps cranking the camera. The movie goes on like this, passionlessly, without a fraction of the power of its source.

Willem Dafoe could have saved this affair single-handedly, and he has his game face on and his vamp fangs in, but Katz's shallow script gives him nothing to work with. Eventually, his stylized performance moves into hamming it up for its own sake, and never comes back. The role is tricky -- he's playing a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire -- and maybe that's too many plates for even this gifted veteran to spin at once. A little ambiguity -- perhaps the suggestion that Schreck isn't a vampire, but that the cast and crew, with Murnau's eager encouragement, come to believe he is -- would have helped Dafoe and the movie.

But that's not what we get. Shadow of the Vampire is a heavy-handed art-film semi-comedy about the director as monster, complete with heady jazz about how the camera takes your essence and immortalizes you at the same time, just like, you know, a vampire. It's also unquestionably mean-spirited. It communicates no particular love for Nosferatu or the people who made it; it's a hipster ride on the coattails of greatness. (Why isn't this a movie about the making of Friday the 13th and how Jason was a real slasher? Answer: because there's no art-house credibility in that.) At times it's like Ed Wood without affection -- and a lot of the footage recreated from Murnau's classic is made to look as dorky as an Ed Wood film!

I think the film's hip disrespect for real figures in film history -- Murnau as a callous control freak who cranks the camera while people die in front of him? -- is what annoys me about the factually inaccurate premise. Murnau's Nosferatu was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and he had to change all the character names to avoid being sued by Stoker's widow. The producers of Shadow of the Vampire had better hope any descendants of the Murnau or Schreck families (if there are any) aren't as litigious as Stoker's wife was.

At best, this is a dawdling, toothless riff on a vastly superior film. At worst, it's character assassination.

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originally posted: 12/25/06 05:00:58
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User Comments

11/07/18 Langano One of the best vampire films. 4 stars
6/14/16 FireWithFire Might've been a good movie, but as usual, MalkoPEE ruined it with his pretentious "acting" 2 stars
10/25/09 brian This movie sucks. Brilliantly. 4 stars
10/23/09 the dork knight Brilliant pairing of Malkovich and DaFoe! Scary / hilarious at the same time 4 stars
4/28/08 simon burgin Agreed! film was rubbish, good premise, bad execution 2 stars
1/10/07 David Pollastrini great concept 5 stars
12/19/06 Goggle Eyes Most terrifyingly plausible vampire movie - ever! 5 stars
8/30/05 ES It was an interesting premise but unworthy of the hype surrounding it 3 stars
3/28/05 indrid cold Juicy performances, but the story is too weird and slow to be good. 3 stars
9/03/03 Charles Tatum An interesting idea told with complete indifference 2 stars
5/01/03 Andrew Carden Willem Dafoe Gives The Best Performance Of 2001. Brilliant Film. 5 stars
4/11/03 Jack Bourbon Brilliant visuals. Too many stories going on at once, though. Good movie overall. 4 stars
3/04/03 Jack Sommersby More of an artistic stunt than an organic motion picture. Dafoe, though, is a delight. 2 stars
11/04/02 kooler Genius. 5 stars
7/29/02 Captain Midol Given a choice between death and sitting through this again? I'd flip a coin. 2 stars
6/06/02 I'm in (L) with a Jedi a bit disappointed, coz the trailers looked cool....but it was too long... 3 stars
4/27/02 maximal01 Dafoe is funny as hell.. but the damn movie wrapped up like they got bored with the story!! 4 stars
3/02/02 Chowie Willem Dafoe is excellent, but the whole movie is too long and streched out 3 stars
1/15/02 Penguin Boy Go Willem Dafoe. Awesome. Malkovich overdoes it, & movie is dull, uninteresting, formulaic 2 stars
12/21/01 daniboy WIllem Dafoe DESERVED thar Oscar 5 stars
11/03/01 Andrew Carden Very Interesting Plot About Making The Movie, but The Rest Is Most Dull. 3 stars
9/23/01 Larry Smith Eddie Izzard... way to go! Willem Dafoe #1! 5 stars
9/18/01 Dane A movie critic's day off! 5 stars
9/05/01 malcolm malkovich is eerily convincing as a lunatic film-maker 4 stars
8/19/01 Reini Urban The first half is interesting, the second boring. 3 stars
7/20/01 Gus it's funny and creepy at the same time!!~~ 5 stars
6/20/01 Stephanie HiCollin, Notenoughspacetowriteeverything. WillemDafoewasgreat.Hadmebelievinghewasavamp. 5 stars
6/17/01 The Bomb 69 looked great, strong acting, the script seemed a little weak though 4 stars
6/02/01 Jason S. Kotz Awesome movie, I was hooked from begining to end. 5 stars
6/02/01 mahone Not funny. Not scary. Boring in the extreme. 2 stars
5/06/01 Roy Smith I had to apologize to my friends for draging them to see this..slow, slow, 2 stars
4/23/01 kelly excellent,a piece of art!!! 5 stars
4/08/01 Lord Raymos Well done, scary..weak ending. 4 stars
3/24/01 Jessi Beautiful-- Most artistic film ever, most intelligent process done-- 5 stars
3/23/01 William Peterson A pretty damn good movie with no clear point in my poor little mind. 4 stars
3/11/01 hum Yes Nosferatu, eat the writer. Too many good ideas under explored 2 stars
3/09/01 roberto getto smells of munau, smells of herzog, smells gRRReat 5 stars
3/04/01 Adam Freeman Funny and scary. 4 stars
3/04/01 Suzz loved it 5 stars
3/02/01 Captain Highcrime A welcome reprieve from the "Blade"s and "Dracula 2000"s of late. 4 stars
3/01/01 Roger the Shrubber Great acting, great set design, original story. If only the ending wasn't so damn silly... 4 stars
2/22/01 Steve Walsh A gem. Expectations of this film mean it's currently being underappreciated. 4 stars
2/20/01 Frank Kelly Good intentions, but pretty incoherent 3 stars
2/16/01 Ken Ratajczyk Awesome! Defoe should win an oscar...Hands Down!!! 5 stars
2/15/01 shawn allen killer story, superb acting, great visuals 5 stars
2/12/01 NoRefill Not much of a story. Never cared about the characters. Defoe is great. 3 stars
2/10/01 KyLe*BrOfLoVsKi Did I mention John Malkovich kicks ass?? 4 stars
2/07/01 Katchoo Unique premise, could have been played up for dark humor, but quite interesting. 4 stars
2/07/01 puckfreak Good movie, longest opening credits scene EVER! 4 stars
2/06/01 sophia866 All Artists are Vampires, all Vampires are addicts, soo..... 5 stars
2/06/01 Dorothy Constable Such a great movie 4 stars
2/05/01 Stephanie Belli refreshingly different 5 stars
2/04/01 geo Best Film Of The Year. If you don't think so, then go see Valentine where you belong. 5 stars
2/02/01 Jed M. Wall This is the finest contemporary film since "L.A. Confidential" 5 stars
2/01/01 James BJ Enjoyable, Dafoe was great!! 4 stars
1/30/01 puff the magic dragon Willem Dafoe steals the show 4 stars
1/30/01 James Good camara work, and story line 4 stars
1/29/01 Stuntman good movie, great cast 4 stars
1/27/01 frankko great performances, but i didn't care much for the story 2 stars
1/26/01 Boy In The Designer Bubble cool movie, much classier than expected. 5 stars
1/24/01 Stephanie Dafoe and Izzard were really the only highlights of this shoddy directionless flick. 2 stars
1/23/01 william fitz Wonderul and intelligent. 5 stars
1/13/01 Neil Great film Dafoe was excellent, but Izzard was better!!! 5 stars
1/11/01 Heather Fascinating, intriguing movie, amazing performance from Willem Dafoe 5 stars
1/11/01 Liz Dafoe and Malkovich succeed in continously freaking me out! The film is truly frightening! 5 stars
1/09/01 Dr Fardook this film accessed a null space in my brain. I think I liked it. I can't remember 4 stars
12/30/00 Joseph Molnar I loved this film. Funny, scary and beautiful. Unlike any other picture I've seen 5 stars
12/20/00 CB Great! Dafoe and cast all manage over-the-top perfmncs without blowing it. Fun. 5 stars
12/18/00 marleene dubois Fantastic, smart, funny, most original film in years, who is this great, original director? 5 stars
12/12/00 cooljo so dummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm 1 stars
11/20/00 Vandemaele Kurt Funny, but too smart for it's own good. And Willem Dafoe is brilliant in the film. 4 stars
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  26-Jan-2001 (R)


  25-Jan-2001 (M)

Directed by
  Elias Merhige

Written by
  Steven Katz

  John Malkovich
  Willem Dafoe
  Cary Elwes
  Catherine McCormack
  Udo Kier
  Eddie Izzard

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