One of the masterpieces of the silent era, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu participated in a German Expressionist tradition that delved into the dark, shadowy, nightmarish world of the subconscious to suggest how real-world horrors are processed. Generally, these effects were achieved in the controlled environment of the studio with artificial sets and lighting tricks, but Murnau broke from his contemporaries by filming on location and insisting on realism, as if the vampire myth was hardly a myth at all. To that end, he hired an unknown and mysterious actor named Max Schreck, whose ashen, rat-like face and long, spindly fingers became immortalized on screen as the definitive Dracula. The ingenious premise behind Shadow Of The Vampire, E. Elias Merhige's stylish and deliciously clever comedy of horrors, is that Schreck may not have been acting at all. The obsessive Murnau, in his pursuit of authenticity, may have reached a devil's bargain with a real vampire: If the "actor" submits to the rigors of production and allows himself to be captured on film, the director will in turn offer up his cast and crew to quench his eternal bloodlust. Though he sports one of the film's many tortured German accents, John Malkovich is still the right choice for Murnau, as he uses his deep, measured, actorly cadences to project authority over every creature, living or undead. After a few early interior scenes at Jofa Studios, Murnau moves the production to the island of Heligoland, where his crew—including lead actors Eddie Izzard and Catherine McCormack, and producer Udo Kier—first encounters Schreck. In a performance of hammy virtuosity, Willem Dafoe fully immerses himself in the juicy role, clearly enjoying the ambiguous distinction between hardcore Method acting and vampirism. At one moment, he seems like an especially needy, tempestuous star, demanding the requisite close-ups and makeup from his director; in the next, he's snatching a bat out of thin air and feasting on it between takes. Shadow Of The Vampire works best as a wicked parody of film production, puncturing the overblown egos that collide in the name of art. Unfortunately, Merhige and his screenwriter, Steven Katz, are guilty of coasting on their brilliant concept, which begins to stretch itself thin just as it should be building to a punchline. For all its witty bon mots and loving recreations of Nosferatu's most famous setpieces, Shadow Of The Vampire amounts to little more than the sum total of its ironic riffing and exacting mimicry. But with an idea this delectable, even a half-realized execution is pleasure enough.
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