Screen Reviews

Shadow of the Vampire

Written by Steven Katz

Directed By E. Elias Merhige

Starring John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe

In the early days of German creepystentialism, no price was too small to pay for Art. And with the mark dropping faster than a Bush’s lead, the price was cheaper than you would think. Still, director F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) didn’t quite win the bidding war for Dracula, but he has a star and financing, so a few script revisions will dance him around the Bundesliteraturestellung. Plus he’s filming in Czechoslovakia, and so who the hell is going to know? And what a star he got. Max Schreck (Dafoe) has the look, the attitude, and might even be a real bloodsucker. And he works cheap, since central European unions are notoriously weak. His fee is the leading lady, Greta (Catherine McCormack), but there’s no paycheck till the final scene. That saves another salary plus no percentage off the back end. Murnau negotiates a tough deal.

So, is this guy real or is he Memorex? Let’s count the pros and cons. On the plus side, he eats rats and drinks blood, but realize foreigners sometimes have different customs than us. And you can’t see him in the mirror and he sleeps in dirt and his ears are like Spock’s after a few hours near the warp drive. Negatives? Well, Schreck might just be a Goth-style leader, and the rats ARE in character. An early Method actor? Frustration will drive beginning actors to do dang near anything if it leads to a part with lines. And who knows what Greta really saw or didn’t, since she was on morphine and the writer was smoking pot and the backup cameraman was doing laudanum. Maybe Schreck’s just a special effect.

But it was a great effect. And Murnau did sell his soul to the devil for a great film, and Schreck still can creep you out, even after the splatter-fests of the ’80s. People seem to die on this set while nobody notices. And as Murnau no longer needed them, they were tossed to Schreck as appetizers. The symbolism is crude and one-dimensional, but the tenor is a condemnation of the film industry and its excesses. Life is less important that the chance, however slim, you’ll be discussed by film school dropouts over cheap beer in the USC student union. Plus, you can always get another cameraman. There’s a whole union full of them.

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