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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2001

BEING MAX SCHRECK

The life sucked out of a film classic



Shadow of the Vampire

Rating: * * * Director: E. Elias Merhige Running time: 93 minutes Language: English Now showing

High-concept filmmaking goes indie? That certainly seems to be the case with "Shadow of the Vampire." An indie flick with a high-profile cast -- John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe -- "Shadow" offers an intriguing premise, but never delivers on it, pretty much coasting through its 90 minutes on one film-buff in-joke.

Willem Dafoe in "Shadow of the Vampire"

And what is that joke? Well let's go back, waaaay back, to 1922 and the F.W. Murnau silent film "Nosferatu," which many regard as the classic vampire film of all-time. Shot in grainy black-and-white, the film's highlight was actor Max Schreck, who played the vampire Count Orlock. Stooped, bald, bug-eyed, with gnarly teeth, clawlike fingernails, cadaverous skin and slavering after his victims with a disgusting blood lust, Schreck was all too convincing in the role.

Who was "Max Schreck," really? What if this previously unknown actor wasn't acting? What if "Nosferatu" was, in fact, a documentary disguised as fiction? That's the high concept for "Shadow," and director E. Elias Merhige -- who has previously displayed his Gothic tastes as a maker of Marilyn Manson music videos -- manipulates Schreck's obscurity to cast a shadow of suspicion around him.

We're dropped into the brave new world of filmmaking in the '20s, when the cinematic vocabulary was still being invented. Murnau, played here by Malkovich, was one of the most inventive stylists of the period, but "Shadow" presents him as your stereotypical director-as-fuhrer, prone to treating his cast as lackeys and making grandiloquent statements such as, "We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory."

Denied the rights to film "Dracula" by Bram Stoker's estate, Murnau decides to shoot his own vampire film on location in Czechoslovakia. The ace up his sleeve is an unknown actor who will play the vampire. Murnau tells his crew that Schreck is a pro who "submerges himself into his character" and will only appear on set in costume and at night, and may only be addressed as Count Orlock.

The film's cast and crew -- including leading lady Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack) and producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier) -- are skeptical of this mysterious Schreck . . . until they meet him. Then they are rightly spooked, more so when the cameraman falls prey to a mysterious malady. What Murnau hasn't told them is that Schreck (Willem Dafoe) is, in fact, a real vampire, and that he's promised him plenty of fresh meat in exchange for appearing in the film.

"Shadow" is not without humor: Dafoe is a treat as the obstinate vampire, shrugging his shoulders as Murnau berates him for taking out the cameraman. "Why not the script girl?" yells Murnau; "I don't think we need the writer," Schreck replies drolly. Better yet is when he sits around chatting with the crew, kvetching about how reading "Dracula" made him depressed. He also does the Ozzie thing, catching a bat in mid-flight and biting its head off. Dafoe's makeup is even more remarkable, with no discernible difference between him and the Schreck of "Nosferatu." You can almost smell him rotting.

Sad to say, though, "Shadow" never finds its direction, flitting from brief but informative looks on how films were made in that era to even briefer ruminations on life as a vampire. Entire characters are wasted: McCormack doesn't do much more than roll about on a bed in the throes of morphine-induced ecstasy.

Most misjudged of all is the facile allegory at the film's core, holding up film directors as a form of talent-vampire. In case you weren't paying attention, Schreck/Orlock spells it out for you: "You and I are really very similar," he hisses at Murnau. Well, duh! The point is valid, but it alone can't hold the weight of a film.

Actually, cinema buffs may well take issue with the film's nasty portrait of Murnau.

Aside from the fact that Malkovich's take on Murnau is pretty much pure Malkovich -- a queeny-bitchy effete -- "Shadow" portrays Murnau as ready to sacrifice his leading lady to the vampire, in order to make what is essentially an arty snuff film. Yes, this is fiction, but was the real Murnau half as despicable? In real life, Murnau's most famous leading lady, Greta Garbo, adored him, and she was no easy diva to please.

If "Shadow of the Vampire" were funnier or offered more insight into the era, such creative license could be forgiven. But in the end, it seems director Merhige's reason for making this film was just to show off how well he could re-create scenes and ambience from the original "Nosferatu."

Despite what postmodern theorists may tell you, there is a clear difference between great art and appropriating great art. "Shadow" comes off like one of those rap songs that sample an old top-40 hit, where the new elements seek to coast on the strength of the classic. Kind of vampiric, actually.

One thing the film did do well was hype: Although Nicolas Cage was "Shadow's" main producer, the filmmakers used the online Hollywood Stock Exchange ( www.hsx.com ) to drum up investors. Punters could buy a $10 share in the film and be privy to weekly production updates and backstage peeks, and also share in a generous bonus if the film did well. While 1,000 shares at $10 each is a negligible amount for even an indie film these days, the buzz and anticipation it produced probably made it a worthwhile ploy. It remains to be seen how many directors will dip into "subscription financing," but I'll write a check for Terry "Ghost World" Zwigoff for whatever he makes next. Perhaps it's time we critics do actually put up or shut up.



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