One of Denver's local newspaper movie reviewers doesn't like movies. I tend to use him as a reverse compass. When does not like a movie it is very likely that everything he says about it is dead wrong. Even when he is going after a movie that I don't like I find his criticisms to be totally wrong and grossly unfair to the film. (Among other things he compared the director of this film, E. Elias Merhige, to filmmaker Kevin Smith, thinking that is an insult. While I do not think of Dogma as the greatest film ever, it certainly isn't bad.)
Thus was the case with Shadow of the Vampire. He complained about the lack of historical accuracy in the film and totally missed the point of the movie. It is not intended to be an accurate piece of history or even of the personalities involved. It is playing "what if", to pretend that vampires are real. To explore the possibility that classic silent film Nosferatu-Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu-a Symphony of Horror) was made using an actual vampire as the lead. What kind of director makes a deal with a real vampire to make his film the most accurate possible?
It is also a fascinating character study of the vampire. At one point he is questioned by two of his fellow actors as to what he thought of Dracula. His response made me feel like he was a monster still, but a monster with a history, with feelings and goals. It was wonderful to have a monster that was still bad without becoming a cardboard cut out.
I also loved how the film captured the feel of the older film, despite being in color. I also think the performance and style of Malkovich as FW Murnau as a driven, not quite sane, artist was good. I have seen complaints that his character is two dimensional, but I didn't see that as the case. He simply is not a main character and he is also someone terribly excited by something that we take as matter of fact. Images of the past that move...
As for the liberties taken with history, I know and, of course, I simply don't care. I am interested in the characters as they are portrayed and don't really mind that F.W. Murnau was not really that arrogant as a director in real life. Nor do I mind the very few (two that I noticed*) anachronistic references that somewhat say something about modern movie making. They added just enough lightness to throw the horror into stark contrast. Do remember everyone this is not history... Or is it?
There is little for people looking for either explosions or hotties. The female lead, Catherine McCormack, appears toppless in one scene lying on her back while druged up, but it is not a sexy sort of titliation. There are some neat references to other works. Be on the look out for the name of the train they go to Czechoslovakia on, a visual reference to the later FW Murnau movie Sunrise, and Method Acting (which was new at the time).
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Writer: Steven Katz
Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, the monster.
John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau, the director.
Udo Kier as Albin Grau, the producer.
Cary Elwes as Fritz Arno Wagner, the replacement cameraman.
Catherine McCormack as Greta Schröder, the female lead.
Eddie Izzard as Gustav von Wangenheim, the male lead.
Note, Malkovich is listed as the lead, but I simply don't see that as the case and so I listed Dafoe before him.
*The two anacronistic references I noticed. One was the Vampire says the steriotypical actor wanting more control line of, "I don't think we need the writer anymore." The other was the line used in the movie trailer, "I'll eat her later," refering to the script girl. It was funny line, but it felt a line Travolta would deliver, a damand by a picky actor. Another reference to modern day Hollywood. These are not bad things mind you, just a bit of reference to later movie making. I think, I could be totally wrong about this.