[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
One of the most eagerly anticipated offerings at Cannes this year, Shadow of the Vampire is the first feature in a decade from E. Elias Merhige, whose only previous effort was the one-of-a-kind avant-garde feature Begotten (1990). That amazing film visualized a timeless cycle of birth, death, and regeneration, in Druidic images at once primeval and postapocalyptic, that seem to have been developed on protoplasmic stock and projected with a flickering bioluminescence. What more appropriate directorial casting, then, for an imaginary (?) account of how F.W. Murnau, the cinema’s first poet of the supernatural, might have made Nosferatu, the first, albeit unofficial, screen version of Dracula.
It seems that Max Schreck, the actor who came out of nowhere in 1921 to play the title role of the vampire and receded into the shadows immediately afterward, may have been the all-time supreme example of stunt casting … and that Murnau, ready to sacrifice anything for his art, may have been even more of a monster in his own right. Casting John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck almost sounds like gilding the lily, but in fact both actors bring unexpected dimensions to their roles — they’re even funnier, freakier, and creepier than you’d assume. Merhige’s re-creations of classic scenes from Nosferatu as they’re “originally” being filmed are still more uncanny. And yet, not all that surprisingly, the most Begotten-like images in Shadow of the Vampire are the occasional bits of real footage from Murnau’s Nosferatu.
From an ingenious screenplay by Steven Katz; with Udo Kier as Albin Grau, Cary Elwes as Fritz Arno Wagner, Carolyn McCormack as Greta Schröder, and Eddie Izzard as Gustav von Wagenheim.