The sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes boring Shadow of the Vampire is American director E. Elias Merhige's attempt to bite the neck that feeds him. Merhige and scriptwriter Steven Katz were obviously smitten with F.W. Murnau's classic silent film Nosferatu, which may be the creepiest Dracula flick of them all. But they haven't simply remade the original, as Werner Herzog did in 1979, with Klaus Kinski as the long-fingered Bat Man. Instead, they've imagined what it would have been like if Murnau, determined to keep it real, had hired an actual vampire to play Nosferatu. More specifically, they've imagined what it would have been like if Max Schreck, the actor who played Nosferatu in Murnau's film, had been an actual vampire. There were rumors, of course, partly because Schreck gave such a stupefyingly horrific performance and partly because he didn't wind up having the career he might have had. Was Schreck perhaps restricted in the kinds of roles he could play--only able to work at night? Shadow of the Vampire doesn't answer that particular question, but it poses some of its own--questions about the madness of Method acting and about the way a movie camera can both grant you immortality and rob you of your soul. John Malkovich's strangely subdued Murnau is a Baron Frankenstein-like scientist, complete with lab coat and safety goggles, and he's after nothing less than "the creation of memory, though our memory will neither blur nor fade." But you have to capture that memory on film first, and Murnau has his hands full with Willem Dafoe's Schreck, who when he's not hitting his marks is leaving marks on the necks of various cast and crew members. Dafoe, who should make sure he's free on Oscar night, digs so deep into his role that you start to wonder whether he's a vampire. As with Martin Landau's Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, it's a dead-on impersonation to which has been added shades of comedy and tragedy--Schreck plus Uncle Fester plus Mephistopheles.
If only Merhige had built more of a movie around Dafoe's delectable performance. The ideas are there, the development of the ideas isn't. And the execution often leaves something to be desired. Merhige doesn't appear to be a natural-born filmmaker. There's no clear motivation for many of his shots, and they don't always match up as well as they should. Also, the movie never quite settles on a tone, wavering uneasily from Frankenstein to Young Frankenstein. Finally, wouldn't it have been better for Schreck to only think he's a real vampire and to act accordingly? Wouldn't that give the movie more places to go? As it is, everything seems locked in once the premise is set up. The filmmakers have come up with a great idea--that movies, vampire-like, drain us of blood, setting up a lifetime of craving, and that actors and actresses have eternal life and eternal death. But you can't just nibble politely on ideas like these. You have to suck them dry. Alas, Shadow of the Vampire never goes for the jugular.