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Laramie Movie Scope:
Shadow of the Vampire

A narcissistic look at making films

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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July 25, 2001 -- The narcissism involved with films about film making or play productions are often the sign of a bankrupt imagination and they can be quite tedious. It is analagous to the worn out, strung out musicians who, for the lack of anything better to do, start writing songs about being a musician. There have been enough of these films in recent years ("State and Main," "Topsy Turvy," "Cradle Will Rock," "RKO 281" and "Scream 3," to name a few) to last me forever. Even more numerous are films which have characters who are blatantly obvious stand-ins for the film makers, "American Beauty" is a good example of that (it's the high school kid who carries the video camera around, duh). Perhaps the most ridiculous example of this kind of self-important, self-indulgence, but an entertaining one at that, is "Shadow of the Vampire."

This film did not come to a big screen within ballistic missile range of where I live, so I did the next best thing; I rented the DVD when it became available. The DVD comes with the usual sorts of things, interviews with the stars, director's commentary soundtrack, scene selections, trailers, etc. One feature I like, which isn't on enough DVD's, is a subtitle option for the hearing impaired. I had trouble hearing some of the softly-spoken dialogue without cranking the volume up, so I switched the subtitles on and it was great. The subtitles ran into the dark, unused portion of my TV screen most of the time and they were quite easy to read. The subtitles also kept up with the spoken dialogue quite well. Another advantage to the subtitles is that you can follow the dialogue in the movie while listening to the director's commentary. There is also a short feature about making the film, and a trailer for director E. Elias Merhige's previous film, "Begotten." The DVD comes in a widescreen anamorphic aspect ratio 2.35:1. Options include Dolby (TM) digital 5.1 and DTS sound. The image seemed good.

The film stars Willem Dafoe in an over-the-top performance as Count Orlock the vampire. John Malkovich stars as legendary German film director F.W. Murnau. The movie is about the filming of the silent horror classic "Nosferatu." Orlock plays Nosferatu ("the undead") under the stage name of Max Shreck (Shreck means "Fright" in German). The gimmick is having a real vampire play a fictitious vampire in the film, based on Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Quite a lot of the film is devoted to the problems surrounding the filming, such as the vampire killing off members of the production company, and the investors trying to back out of the film. The film even follows that most common of horror genre devices, combining sex and horror. There is a gratuitous topless scene in the film featuring Catherine McCormack of "The Tailor of Panama". The film also stars Cary Elwes of "Cradle Will Rock."

Aside from the wonderfully dedicated performances of Malkovich and Dafoe and the vampire's great makeup job by Ann Buchanan and Amber Sibley (the film received two nominations for Academy awards, Dafoe for best supporting actor and Ann and Amber for achievement in makeup, but failed to win), the best part of the film is the incredible artwork that runs behind the opening credits. It was designed to follow the history of art up until the 1920's when "Nosferatu" was made.

According to the enthusiastic commentary by director E. Elias Merhige, this movie is supposed to be about the art of cinema, or some such nonsense. This is hardly art. It is more like a derivative product, like Coke or Pepsi. It depicts the movie director as this godlike creature all consumed by his art. Get over yourself! The truth is Murnau stole the Nosferatu story from Bram Stoker. That's plagerism, not art. Murnau was was portrayed as ruthless in this film, like that's a good thing. Murnau is probably spinning in his grave.

Fortunately, the film does not play as serious as you might believe if you swallow all that stuff the director says. It plays light and funny, in part, because if its high absurdity quotient. If one were to take the movie seriously, the ending would be horrible indeed, and all movie directors would be shot on sight. Fortunately, movie directors generally don't have godlike powers of life and death. Instead, they operate celluloid flea circuses. They either entertain, or they don't. This one is entertaining, to a certain point. It rates a C+.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

[Strip of film rule]
Copyright © 2001 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)