- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2001

''Shadow of the Vampire" tries to evoke the circumstances surrounding the production of the 1922 German silent film "Nosferatu," the granddaddy of vampire thrillers.

Shadow imagery was a crucial artistic resource for director F.W. Murnau in "Nosferatu." Film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill borrow two stunning shadow images when alluding to the film in one segment of their splendid chronicle "Cinema in Europe": the hunched silhouette of the sinister Nosferatu along a wall and his extended, spidery arm ascending the nightgown of the heroine, Ellen Hutter, until it appears to clutch her heart in a death grip.

"Shadow of the Vampire," one of the most complacently ignorant travesties in recent memory, suffers from death-grip problems of another sort. Director E. Elias Merhige prolongs the opening credits in a way that guarantees monotony before the movie proper begins. For about five minutes, the names of the participants share screen space with sepia wallpaper patterns, a decorative backdrop that has no discernible link to the period or the content.

The aims of screenwriter Steven Katz and the tedious Mr. Merhige prove more elaborate and disreputable. They endeavor to falsify "Nosferatu" with a hoax that resembles urban legends.

The title character of "Nosferatu," derived without copyright permission from Bram Stoker's "Dracula," was played by minor character actor Max Schreck. His wraithlike creepiness was a triumph of makeup, costuming and pantomime. The grotesque angularity of Nosferatu — sharply oversized ears, nose, teeth and fingers looming out of a black robe — remains an indelible vision of approaching menace.

The central joke of "Shadow of the Vampire" is that Schreck (Willem Dafoe) is not an actor but a real vampire, discovered by Murnau (John Malkovich) and allowed to wreak havoc on the company to guarantee authentic horror for the camera. This whopper inflicts a slanderous caricature on Murnau.

One of the great cinematic stylists of the 1920s — whose versatility and prowess as an image maker were unmatched, from "Nosferatu" through "The Last Laugh," "Tartuffe," "Faust" and "Sunrise" — is reduced to a ruthless accomplice to blood lust. He is portrayed as willing to watch his colleagues be slaughtered and vampirized as long as that serves the effectiveness of a filmmaking "vision."

Mr. Malkovich cuts such a doltish figure as Murnau that the movie seems to miscalculate by giving him credit for supremely evil motives. If Mr. Katz and Mr. Merhige were operating on an effective system of parodistic logic, the Dr. Frankenstein in their setup would need to be devoured by his own monster. Murnau, recruited to Hollywood in the late 1920s to shoot the remarkable tear-jerker "Sunrise," did die relatively young, at age 42, but as the victim of a freakish car accident near Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1931.

As far as anyone knows, he never was in thrall to vampire mythology. He also never sacrificed cast members or crew members to the greater glory of the cinema, especially not by recording death agonies in a trance of documentary "authenticity."

Talk about messing with your betters. The investment squandered on "Shadow of the Vampire" might have been diverted more usefully to restoring Murnau's classics to a semblance of their pictorial distinction. The video copy of "Sunrise" in circulation looks battered and runs about 20 minutes short. I'm told that a "Nosferatu" restoration is available on DVD, but I've never laid eyes on a theatrical print that liberated the imagery from signs of age and neglect.

"Shadow" reminds one of this defect by inserting scenes from "Nosferatu" that depend on flickering and faded dupe prints. It's as if there never was a first-generation image. The very first takes were striated and murky. Conceivably, a farce about vintage filmmaking could make clever use of such a misconception, but "Shadow" is the handiwork of numbskulls and bumblers.

Mr. Dafoe is the only member of the cast who gets to play dumb or monstrous while mercifully concealed. I was gratified that he didn't win the supporting-actor award at the recent Golden Globes. The stupidities that govern this movie should not be rewarded.

One of them insults the acting profession as boorishly as the general idea insults the work of Murnau: the notion that no one can play a vampire with more credibility than a "real" vampire. Of course, the notion can be advanced only in a facetious spirit, but some folks are better at literal-minded facetiousness than others.

"Shadow of the Vampire" is so incompetent at simulating the cinematic past and then simulating mockery that its ideal audience may be people prepared to believe that horror thrillers are documentary films.

"Shadow" claims the distinction of blowing the whistle on "Nosferatu," unmasked at last as a snuff film.1/2{*}TITLE: "Shadow of the Vampire"RATING: R (occasional profanity, graphic violence, nudity and sexual vulgarity)CREDITS: Directed by E. Elias Merhige. rScreenplay by Steven KatzRUNNING TIME: 89 minutes


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