Wednesday, January 18, 2017

In short: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (John Malkovich) is filming Nosferatu, his great, unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. Unbeknownst to anyone but Murnau, the man playing the vampire Orloff, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), is in fact an actual vampire playing an actor playing a vampire. Murnau has bought his cooperation by promising him his lead actress Greta Schröder (Catherine McCormack) once the shoot is over, perhaps with the thought to betray him.

Though once the vampire starts to become impatient and sets teeth to some of the crew, it becomes quickly clear that the director is willing to – quite literally - sacrifice anyone on the altar of his art, apart from himself, of course.

That latter bit is one of the things E. Elias Merhige’s strange (in all the good ways) horror film, drama, dark comedy Shadow of the Vampire understands much better than most films concerned with questions of art and sacrifice: how it’s very often others who pay his price, while the artist takes on the pose of suffering. Consequently, Merhige’s view on artistic production seems cynical bordering on the outright bitter, Dafoe’s Schreck embodying all kinds of emotional horrors, among them the worst sides of certain artist types that, like the film’s Murnau, would commit every atrocity as long as they can excuse it with their art, in classic horror film style externalizing internal horrors.

At the same time as Shadow of the Vampire is an appropriately horrific look at the dark aspects of the artistic impulse with a vampire as a metaphor, it is also a horror movie whose vampire is quite real, an often visually darkly poetic film, and also a comedy with a wickedly dark sense of humour.

All three of these aspects are embodied in Dafoe’s fantastic portrayal of a thing so ancient it has forgotten what it means to be human, a monster grotesque, pathetic, and dangerous all at the same time.

How Merhige manages to keep all these different aspects of his film in check without them tearing apart Shadow of the Vampire while dragging it in all directions, I’m honestly not sure. A pact with the devil, perhaps? In any case, he does, and leaves us with a film so rich I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed trying to make sense about it.

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