In the ‘Shadow’ of a ‘Symphony’
Shadow of the Vampire is one of those films that no one ever, ever, ever talks about. Like a thief in the night, the film came and went with hardly a whisper. Since then, I can’t recall a single instance that I’ve heard or seen, not even on a cinephile message board, a single mention of this film from another human soul. That must be remedied.
The film stars Willem Dafoe in easily one of his most underrated performances as Max Schreck, a mysterious actor who’s just been hired by the silent era film director FW Marnau to play the title character in his latest picture, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. (Maybe you’ve heard of it?) John Malkovich portrays Marnau at the thinnest of lines between passion and obsession; a filmmaker who is willing to do whatever it takes to get his film made.
Marnau and his crew venture away from the safe conveniences of his soundstage in Berlin to the farthest reaches of the Carpathian Mountains, where an old Slovak castle lies, seemingly abandoned. There they meet Schreck looming around. The crew knows very little of the actor they’re working with; only that he’s a dedicated character actor. One night, during a casual conversation with some of the crew, Schreck snatches a bat in mid-flight and drinks from its blood. Everyone is stunned and oddly amazed by his dedication to the role.
Little do they know of Schreck’s true nature — I mean, how could they know? Vampires don’t exist; rational thinking tells us this. Only one man knows his secret, Marnau, he’s known all along. Here he has this dark, sadistic creature by the name of Count Orlok, a real, despicable monster, who has to look menacing, which takes a lot of work. Make up, prosthetics — why bother? Not when you can have a real live bloodsucker in your midst? It’s brilliant really — you know, in a psychotic sort of way!
Shadow of the Vampire is a loose remake of Nosferatu, paralleling the events and imagery of FW Marnua’s silent masterpiece, all the while giving us a neat little hook, a brilliant “what if” scenario that’s used effectively, especially in the finale. (Of course, had Max Schreck really been a creature of the night, he would’ve been killed instantly, as many of Nosferatu‘s scenes were clearly shot day for night.)
Rounding out the film is a great cast, including Udo Kier as Albin Grau, the film’s producer; Cary Elwes as Fritz Arno Wagner, the cinematographer; and Eddie Izzard as Gustav von Wangenheim, the unfortunate actor who makes the mistake of slicing his finger open in one of his scenes with Schreck.
All of these guys are great in the film, but it would be a crime not to single out Dafoe, who completely, 100% disappears into the role. The way he lurks, the way he moves in the film, Dafoe owns his performance of this fictionalized version of Max Screck, just as Schreck did 78 years prior in the role of Count Orlok. And then there’s his voice — man, he even sounds like what you imagine him sounding like when you’re watching Nosferatu. Shadow of the Vampire could be Dafoe’s finest hour.
If you haven’t seen the film, and there’s chance you haven’t, then I do recommend seeking it out. It’s a niche title, but it’s still in print, and rather cheap to obtain.