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Madness in the Method

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[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
The Tampa Theatre is a local landmark, and if you go you’ll see why. The restored downtown theater was built in the Florida Mediterranean style in 1926. The theater hosts pop concerts and screens art-house movies and classic films — sometimes even silent classics, accompanied live on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ that rises up through the stage floor. This weekend, it’s showing Shadow of the Vampire, the new Willem Dafoe movie reviewed below. Tip: Get there early to hear the Wurlitzer.

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001


What if they made a vampire film and a vampire was really the star? Shadow of the Vampire brings this eerie idea to spine-chilling life as it portrays the bizarre star of Nosferatu.

One of the indelible images from cinema's silent era is Max Schreck's arrival on screen in F.W. Murnau's 1922 vampire classic Nosferatu: bald, reed-thin, with a milky pallor, a rat-ghoul more terrifying than Bela Lugosi because he truly didn't appear human.

Shadow of the Vampire poses a deceptively playful question: What if Schreck were indeed undead, a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire? It would be the ultimate performance, with genuine madness in Schreck's Method acting.

Screenwriter Steven Katz and first-time director E. Elias Merhige take that idea and, while not exactly running with it, create a striking conjecture. Shadow of the Vampire works on several levels: as an ode to the German expressionism -- specifically Nosferatu -- that shaped American cinema, as a backstage satire for any decade and as a showcase for Willem Dafoe's amazing transformation into Schreck.

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[Photo: Lions Gate Films]
Willem Dafoe plays Max Schreck of Nosferatu fame in Shadow of the Vampire.
You watch this performance and wonder how Dafoe does it. The external tools are obvious: makeup to resemble Schreck's odd skull and rodent features, a confining frock keeping Dafoe eerily still except for skeletal hands and long fingernails clicking as he thinks. It's literally a pale imitation of the original.

Yet, the outer disguise doesn't prevent Dafoe from exposing the internal feelings of this man-monster. Dafoe's Schreck is ruthless in his quest for blood, barely held in check by Murnau (John Malkovich), who hired the vampire to add realism to his film. Dafoe also finds sympathy, even gentleness, in Schreck's frustration, like Frankenstein's creature picking flowers with a little girl. But that child ended up dead, as do several of Schreck's co-stars.

Murnau's typecasting of a vampire, endangering the crew, is just one sly swipe Katz and Merhige take at filmmaking. Malkovich is almost too aware of the role's ironies, in a performance attempting to match Dafoe's grandiose manner without as many idiosyncrasies. Shadow of the Vampire does more justice to Murnau's craft than his personality.

Merhige cloaks his film with the same technique Murnau pioneered: exotic shadows and fog, slightly off-kilter camera angles and an enveloping sense of dread. The effect often overpowers Katz's comical asides in the script. Footage from the original Nosferatu is cleverly incorporated, and there are enough insider references to satisfy film students.

(One correction, though: Early in the movie, a character remarks that Murnau is to be considered among great directors such as D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein. Griffith is fine, but Eisenstein didn't release his first work until 1923, two years after this film's setting.)

The expert production standards can't mask the fact that, even at 90 minutes, Shadow of the Vampire is an idea extended too long. The inevitable bloodbath comes more slowly than sunrise, and the closing-shot kicker is merely a summation of the artistic ego already defined. Merhige sets a fine tableau for Katz's inspired notion but never expands it beyond novelty.

For sheer audacity, though, it's hard to top Dafoe. His over-the-top portrayal seems as out of place in the somber surroundings as Schreck must have seemed in real life. Hissing double-edged threats such as "I don't think we need the writer anymore," or skulking and sulking about his close-ups, Dafoe's Schreck is a classic interpretation of a vague, mysterious screen icon. This fiction is stranger than a very weird truth.

Shadow of the Vampire

  • Grade: B
  • Director: E. Elias Merhige
  • Cast: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier
  • Screenplay: Steven Katz
  • Rating: R; violence, profanity, sexual situations, drug abuse
  • Running time: 90 min.
  • Now playing: Tampa Theatre

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