I’m sure this script seemed like a good idea at the time, but the final product feels like a film student’s idea of a Saturday Night Live sketch. Maybe it could have been funny at four minutes if you have a film degree, but the one-joke premise peters out well before the running time reaches an hour and a half. You’d think a recreation of a historical event could serve an education. This might be true with the new film “Shadow of the Vampire,” but the lessons to be learned are probably not quite what its producers had envisioned.
[ LEssON #1: A SILENT CLAssIC ] ^ I’d expect most everyone is familiar with Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula”. Possibly the book’s best adaptation, though unauthorized, was director F. W. Murnau’s 1922’s silent “Nosferatu”. The German classic is known for both its artistry and for the strange legends surrounding its production. Myths can be largely attributed to its limited documented history and the director’s then-unusual decision to shoot on location at a remote castle. Murnau saw the possibilities of applying the then-fashionable German Expressionist visual style to the most authentic settings possible, five decades before “The Exorcist” did kind-of the same thing.
The greatest mystery surrounds stage veteran Max Schreck in the role of Dracula, renamed Count Orlock for legal reasons. Why him? There are a few reasons. In make-up and costume, he became an unsettling presence unlike anything seen before and rarely since. His name also roughly translates into English as “terror”. The final nail in the coffin is that due to the loss of all of Schreck’s other films, the only known photographs of the actor are of him in full Orlock drag.
[ LEssON #2: HISTORICAL FACT OR FANTASY? ] ^ Already remade successfully by Werner Herzog in 1979, director E. Elias Merhige and writer Steven Katz have opted instead for a fictionalized story about the production of “Nosferatu”. “Shadow of the Vampire” recreates the chaotic era of Germany’s Weimer Republic, and the filmmakers never pass up a chance to revel in the sex, drugs, and general decadence of the times. However, this party is not due to end well. In the film’s big, high-concept twist, Murnau (John Malkovich), obsessed with authenticity, somehow locates and procures the services of a REAL vampire (Willem Dafoe) to star in his movie. The director explains away his eccentricities to his staff as the behavior of a really committed method actor. Hey, nobody’s normal in show biz, so they buy it. Unfortunately Murnau may not have properly anticipated certain special dietary needs or temperaments. Soon enough, the situation becomes a race against time for the director to complete his masterpiece before it’s consumed by its star.
[ LEssON #3: SOME QUESTIONABLE CHOICES ] ^ Ah, where to begin? On just its own merits, the script appears to run out of ideas during the final third, as it abruptly lurches towards its conclusion. As for the cast, well, low-key or naturalistic performances must not have been high priority. Between stars Malkovich, Dafoe, Udo Kier, Eddie Izzard, and Cary Elwes, there must not have been enough oxygen and scenery left to feed to Christopher Walken and Crispin Glover. Dafoe does a fine, creepy job, but he does have the one legitimate freak part. On the other hand, the over-the-top Malkovich and his cheesy German accent left me nostalgic for the subtlety of “Con Air”. The most pervasive flaw is the emphasis on obsession and the decadent lifestyle, leaving the audience to try to care about characters that seem little more than a bunch of amoral, doped-up a******s.
[ LEssON #4: ART VS. THE AUDIENCE ] ^ For any artistic medium, truly “objective” evaluation is a myth. Judgement is subject to an individual’s reaction as shaped by their physical conditions, life experience and frame of cultural reference. In the case of “Shadow of the Vampire,” I can quickly identify three categories where the degree of personal knowledge will define viewer reaction.
Probably the largest group is not familiar with either “Nosferatu” or its production. Without the frame of reference, “Shadow of the Vampire” must stand on its own. Many enjoyed “Shakespeare in Love” without needing to be a scholar, but that movie had a much more solid conceptual base. “Shadow” is lazier and more dependent upon assumed awareness of the historical significance of what’s up on the screen. For instance, the power of the original’s final scene was a central character’s deliberate self-sacrifice. This motivation isn’t made clear in the recreation, where its memory should provide a strong, thematic contrast to the motivations and actions of the crew as we watch them shoot it. If you haven’t seen the original, I don’t see how you would get it.
The second group has seen the original, but know little else. These lucky souls will probably enjoy the movie the most, as they can have an existing affinity for the material without the distractions of group three.
I’d count myself in the final (smallest and probably most anal) segment. These are the film geeks aware of both “Nosferatu” and the people who made it. On behalf of all the other dorks in this category, I’d like to state that we have some issues.
[ LEssON #5: RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE FILMMAKER ] ^ The first job of a filmmaker is to tell a gripping story. Pretty high on the list after that is to define and successfully communicate the picture’s message. When depicting real-life people or events, a film’s producers must acknowledge how their efforts shape public perception. You know that with “J.F.K.”, “The Doors” and “Nixon,” Oliver Stone is acutely aware of what he is trying to say.
Rewriting the facts, for any reason, can’t be taken lightly. It’s one thing to combine characters or compress time to clarify the story. It’s another when history, particularly historical figures, are only elements to be manipulated for an author’s fiction. Alterations to a real person’s fate or personality should have specific purpose and respect for who they were. If not, why refer to anyone real at all?
You might expect an audience to understand last year’s “Dick” only parodied Richard Nixon, but they probably won’t be so dismissive of most any historical drama. Regardless of the merits of the film or the story, director D.W. Griffith was justly crucified over adapting “Birth of a Nation” from the deeply racist novel “The Klansmen,” a poisonous fairy tale of Reconstruction and the origins of the Ku Klux Klan. Often taken as historical document, its release greatly set back race relations while breathing new life into the then-dying Klan. Likewise, I’d expect few sufficiently educated viewers to correct the negative impressions left of Murnau and others in “Shadow of the Vampire”.
It’s not so easy to draw the lines in the sand where Katz and Merhige chose to go their own way. Few will confuse the real Schreck for a genuine bloodsucker. That deviation from fact only precedes the deaths of many characters whose namesakes survived the wrap of “Nosferatu” to continue long and sometimes important careers. Those deaths, though, are easier to justify than how some participants are portrayed while they are alive. Maybe it’s me, but Malkovich’s Murnau reminds me of egomaniacal director William Friedkin around the time he made “The Exorcist”. Known for his flamboyant speech and mannerisms, legends abound of his mindgames to get what he wanted from his cast during the production of the classic film. This might be just an artistic choice, a very obscure in-joke, or my delusion. The real Murnau could be a perfectionist and a hard-a*s, but nothing I’ve read about Murnau points to the reckless, drug-addled a*****e portrayed by Malkovich.
I’m sure most of the character interpretations are questionable, but one in particular really bugs the hell out of me. From the movie, I’d have to conclude cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner (Cary Elwes) was probably a capable shooter, but a better drinking buddy and drug dealer, though likely a very bad friend. However, the real Wagner had a very significant career before and after “Nosferatu”. During this era, even American filmmakers looked up to the Germans and learned much from the composition and lighting used by the German Expressionist movement. Arguably the two best directors of photography involved (and probably then considered among the best in the world) were Karl Freund (“Metropolis,” “The Last Laugh”) and, yes, Fritz Wagner. Later, Wagner would at least equal “Nosferatu” with Fritz Lang’s “M”. Unfortunately, the description painted by “Shadow of the Vampire” leans much closer to “candyman” than to anything resembling “genius”.
[ FINAL EXAM ] ^ Though most of the first hour is somewhat amusing between all the naughtiness and overacting, I still walked away unsure of the intended audience for this picture or what it was trying to tell me. Viewed without a frame of reference for the material, it’s an underwritten, uneven, and very obscure art-house flick. Viewed with too much historical awareness, the liberal application of “artistic license” too often results in distraction or confusion.
The closest thing I sense in the way of a statement is something about the damage artists (filmmakers, actors, whatever) can inflict upon themselves and others to produce their art. The big example here is Murnau. As portrayed, he nearly sucks as much life out of his cast and crew as Schreck. If that were it, the filmmakers could have recreated the long and hellish shoots for Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” or Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. With those productions, the same arguments could be made without straying from the facts.
More likely, screenwriter Katz thought he had a cool idea that could look cool and maybe have a cool cast. He should have taken the time to fix the script. It needed either more research or much polishing to coherently stand on its own. Both were probably necessary. A closer study of Friedkin, Coppola, or Murnau might have taught the benefits of an artist pushing himself or his collaborators to their limits. The strain might suck for the short term, but it’s better than cringing for the next couple of decades at the mention of that cinematic failure that could have been saved had you tried. A one-line pitch might be enough to excite some investors and shape a trailer, but for the full-length feature you’re going to need a few more ideas.