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Shadow of the Vampire
2000 - R - 84 Mins.
Director: E. Elias Merhige, Elias Merhige
Producer: Jeff Levine, Nicolas Cage
Written By: Steven Katz
Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Aden Gillett, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack
Review by: David Trier
   
This certainly has enough elements to make for a fantastic film. Let's list them, shall we? John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, a supernatural element, a story about filmmaking, an artsy-fartsy add campaign... so what gives? With all this promise, Shadow of the Vampire is little more than silly.

In the early 1920's, famed German film director F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) wanted to do for Bram Stoker's Dracula what Coppola did seventy years later. But he couldn't get the rights, so he made Nosferatu instead. It was the same story, just a different name. The title character was played by Max Schreck (Dafoe), who in this fictional history-inspired film happens to be a real vampire. He agrees to star in the film under the condition that Murnau will let him eat the lead actress (Catherine McCormack) in the end. But crew members keep disappearing and this poses problems for the producer (Udo Kier) and especially Murnau, a man passionate about his art.

Malkovich delivers a powerful performance as the over-zealous, dreamy director. And he's blessed with a few very well-written monologues about the nature of filmmaking. You can always rely on Malkovich to do his job. And Willem Dafoe is well cast as the monster, even if the monster is more goofball than he is intimidating. The make-up job is quite good, too. Udo Kier adds a little something to whatever movie he's in. Even if he only delivers a mediocre performance, he's one of those guys that belongs on celluloid. Eddie Izzard delivers a good performance as the bad movie actor forced to work with the monster. His reactions are great and his comic performance is very entertaining. Cary Elwes deserves mention too as the director of photography flown in to replace one of Schreck's victims. The movie has some neat camera tricks, like changing the look of the film when we're seeing it through the lens of the movie camera. And the film captures the frustration of making the early movies without modern technology.

So if the acting is good and the cinematography is good, why isn't the movie itself? Well, for one thing, there's no real dramatic conflict. Sure, Murnau wants to make a movie and Schreck wants to eat people, but so what? They do little more than talk about it. We know for a fact that Schreck is a real vampire when we are first introduced to him so there's no real mystery and much of the film is wasted with Murnau trying to explain the backstory - how they met, why he agreed to do the movie, all of which we could have guessed. Schreck does very little as a vampire other than look ugly and do some obligatory sucking. There is one scene when he approaches the producer and director of photography on a break and discusses vampirism. It borders on interesting, but he only uses vague poetry and we never really get what he's talking about. On the other hand, he does catch a bat in midair and eat it right in front of them. That was cool. There is an attempt to build some tension between the director who's promised the monster the girl and the monster who's promised the director a performance. But it's hard to take seriously because one of them is a silly German film guy and the other one is an ACTUAL MONSTER who intrinsically has the upper hand.

Anyway, the question is, "What if the guy from the first big vampire movie was actually a vampire?" The film dances around the answer and touches upon some clever ideas, but never really comes to any meaningful conclusions and never really gives us enough character in the monster for him to be truly fascinating. When he does speak, usually between sniffles, he's usually saying something silly. The audience is left wanting something more substantial. Well, I was anyway. On the other hand, the film does have its laugh-out-loud moments which might make it worth a rental.
 
Movie Guru Rating
Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not.
  3 out of 5 stars

 
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