Directed By: E. Elias Merhige
Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier
Tag line: "An Unspeakable Horror. A Creative Genius. Captured For Eternity"
Trivia: The part of Max Schreck was written specifically for Willem Dafoe
In the early 1920's, German director F.W. Murnau set out to make a film based on the classic novel, Dracula. Starring Max Schreck as a bloodthirsty vampire, Murnau's film, Nosferatu, remains, to this day, a masterwork of horror.
Released in 2000, Shadow of the Vampire is a fictional account of the making of Nosferatu, but with a slight modification to the story; this time around, Max Schreck is not merely an actor playing the part of a vampire. In a twist that is certainly among the most ingenious in recent memory, a real-life vampire (Willem Dafoe) has been hired by Murnau (John Malkovich) to play the role of an actor named Schreck who will, in turn, play a vampire in his new film. And exactly how did Murnau convince a real vampire to star in his movie? By promising him the throat of the leading lady (Catherine McCormack) once filming was completed. For Murnau, it's the perfect arrangement, the ultimate truth for his artistic endeavor, but can he control the beast he's so callously unleashed on his unsuspecting crew?
In the hands of director Elias Merhige, Shadow of the Vampire becomes an engrossing parable of morality vs. artistic endeavor. The basic thrust of the film is the accountability of the artist towards the creation of his art. From the opening scene, it’s apparent that Murnau is a man obsessed; he believes himself an artist, and his tool, the motion picture camera, is one he's convinced will someday prove more expressive than paint and canvas. He knows that images committed to film, aside from being in motion, are permanent, and Nosferatu will stand as his testament to future generations, proof of his creative skills, perhaps even his very existence. It is for this reason, and to this end, that Murnau so willingly offers up the blood of his crew to a monster.
But then who's the real monster of Shadow of the Vampire? Schreck is a killer, but only because nature has made him one. Murnau, on the other hand, risks the lives of those who depend on him, all for the furthering of motion pictures as a legitimate art form. Schreck kills to survive, and to a degree we can pity him his pathetic existence. Murnau’s demons, unleashed time and again throughout the film, are the by-product of his seemingly selfish personality, and this makes his transgressions much more difficult to forgive.
As evidenced in Shadow of the Vampire, the pursuit of a filmmaker, or indeed any artist, to achieve immortality through their work is often a double-edged sword, and the most frightening thing about a double-edged sword is there’s simply no way of knowing who will be cut by it.