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IN SHORT: Brilliant. [Rated R for some sexuality, drug content, violence and language. 93 minutes]
Refused permission to adapt Bram Stoker's Dracula for the nascent medium called film, German filmmaker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau simply changed the names in the story and shot his movie under the title Nosferatu. Don't forget that back in 1922 there was no such thing as a "horror" film or a "vampire movie". Nosferatu was a landmark in the history of film; the most realistic vampire film made to that date brought worldwide fame to Murnau . . .
. . . which is probably why most people nowadays have no idea who the man was. Most of his silent films are long lost or destroyed. Murnau's Hollywood output was limited to one movie made before his death in an automobile accident. If you know of Nosferatu, you probably learned of it in a film class. Good for you.
Something brilliant has happened to a film that was a landmark in its day. It is the concept of screenwriter Steven Katz who let his imagination run wild after thinking that the silent film looked like a documentary and who found pictures of Murnau and his crew in lab coats and goggles. So . . . what if Nosferatu wasn't a rip off of Dracula? What if Murnau was using the story as a cover for the cinematic documentation of a being so unique that it had survived for hundreds of years? What price would have to be paid to convince the creature to participate in such a project? And what would he tell the actors? That "sacrifices must be made for their art?" or that by working on film they would achieve "immortality"?
Heh heh heh.
Herr Doktor F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is the master of his set. His producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier) is funding a movie which has no star in place. True, there are "regular" actors, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack) who would prefer to be working on stage and Gustav von Wangerheim (Eddie Izzard), not a particularly good actor but available and willing to do as he is told. Where, wonders Grau, is the actor to play the Monster? He is already deep in character, living in an abandoned castle in Czechoslovakia, says a lighting assistant. The assistant teases the Producer, revealing all the background information we need to know, "as told to (him) by Herr Doktor". (Here, as in several other scenes, the question of Murnau's sexual proclivities and interests is raised, as it was in the Hollywood of his day. Pick up a copy of Hollywood Babylon for more.) Schreck studied with Stanislavsky the crew is told and they accept this explanation for "the Count's" extraordinary appearance and behavior.
It is most extraordinary, indeed. Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe, click for StarTalk) is already in character. You are led to believe that the creature he creates was literally able to smell the human blood pulsing hot and fresh in their veins. And when he takes Method Acting to the lengths that include attacking the crew, this character tells Murnau that does not feed "often". When he does it is with, shall we say, gusto. Murnau demands that the deal he made with Schreck, which protects most of the crew, be kept to the letter. "Or you'll do what?" says the Creature.
Willem Dafoe's performance is so good it doesn't matter if you know the whole story, which you don't. You know enough to say we've spilled a secret but, those who have read enough Cranky already know, there's more to come. Don't expect a Hammer blood gusher. Do expect statue worthy work from Dafoe and Malkovich and terrific support from Cary Elwes as cinematographer Fritz Wagner. And while the script's only limitation is that it doesn't explain to a non film-making audience how actors just flat out disappear when they've finished their parts (Eddie Izzard does the vanishing act here), we didn't notice the flaw until long after the fact.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Shadow of the Vampire, he would have paid...
Absolutely top notch cool.
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