The doomed are often a remarkably energetic and productive lot, especially when it comes to creating portraits of their personal horrors. Themes vary in intensity between slow self-destruction and grand devastation, but in vampirism the full spectrum of ghastliness may be covered. This is because the imbalance represents so much to so many. From the horrifying lore of the misty Carpathian mountains (fictionalized and rendered immortal by Bram Stoker) to the blood disease porphyria (causing photosensitivity, erratic behavior and even The Madness of King George) to the romantic parasitism propelling much contemporary fiction and goth-club theatricality, the vampire is always the coolest of the doomed, spreading an epidemic both fascinating and evil. Amid all the seduction and sexual metaphor and consumption, however, the source of the doomed creature's unholy hunger usually remains a mystery.
Fortunately, almost everybody is doomed in Shadow of the Vampire by E. Elias Merhige (Begotten), so the overall portrait offers a striking symmetry between man and monster, as well as a demystification of both the traditional vampire paradigm (Christopher Lee hissing menacingly) and the "relatable" contemporary vampire (Tom Cruise flipping his hair). The quirky and cruel screenplay by Steven Katz presents the humanity inherent in vampirism -- and especially vice versa -- while telling a universal tale of insatiable hunger leading to madness leading to death. Although such a project could easily decompose into intolerable, mean-spirited junk, Merhige and Katz focus as much on the jocular as the jugular, and they're attended by a superb cast who sustain a perfect pitch.
The year is 1921, and we open with a recreation of Berlin's JOFA studios, where the director F.W. Murnau (a delirious John Malkovich) snaps at producer Albin Grau (a splendidly uppity Udo Kier) and leading lady Greta Schroeder (a spunky Catherine McCormack). "A theatrical audience gives me life, while this thing takes it from me!" presciently declares Greta, glaring at Murnau's hand-cranked camera, less a machine than a mad fetish for the obsessive artist. Clearly a self-inflated and kinky loon (as evidenced by some quick, lurid action in a morphine-drenched cabaret), Murnau is driven by hunger, which translates into a desire to create the most realistic movie ever filmed.
Woe to his cast and crew, however, as a steam train called Charon (with a rather poignant voice-over explaining that "our battle, our struggle, is to create cinematic art") transports them to the lush, haunted valleys of Czechoslovakia, where Murnau intends to create his monster movie. Bram Stoker's widow has refused him the rights to her late husband's novel, so he has simply renamed the project Nosferatu, featuring a vampire named Count Orlock. In Merhige's film, however, this is where historical re-creation ends and wild fiction begins, for Katz has taken a crucial liberty with the little-known actor who portrayed the tall, bald, ratlike vampire in the real Murnau's real Nosferatu, nearly 80 years ago. In order to deceive his team and achieve his dream, Murnau has latched onto Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe, devilishly amusing), a genuinely undead bloodsucker whom he's trying to pass off as a Stanislavsky graduate.
This is the one trick that sustains the remainder of the movie, but it's a good one, because the gruesome Schreck's "method acting" requires the crew to shoot his scenes exclusively at night. Slowly, Murnau's small army of craftsmen and actors come to learn the truth about their pallid, persnickety star, whose appetite leads him much more to flesh than fame. As the first cameraman (Ronan Vibert) and the hilariously devalued screenwriter (John Aden Gillet) meet with the horrors of Schreck, Murnau simply becomes more obsessive, barking commands at his alternately jovial and terrified leading man, Gustav von Wangerheim (Eddie Izzard), and roguish replacement cameraman (Cary Elwes) to complete Nosferatu at any cost. Most disturbing of all, as a sort of completion agreement with his unpredictable villain, the nearly certifiable Murnau has promised Schreck a delectable morsel at the wrap party.
Without question, Shadow of the Vampire is a stately and elegant horror film, interwoven with delicious strands of black comedy. Apart from the unpleasantness inherent in the story's very essence (just a stone's throw from Vampire producer Nicolas Cage's nasty turn in Joel Schumacher's 8mm), the movie's main problem may be that the material will be too obvious for more reverent students of the genre. It's not scary or suspenseful, per se, and it's much more dank and claustrophobic than the original Nosferatu or, for that matter, the powerful and haunting 1979 remake by Werner Herzog. Whereas Murnau gave us the darkest of fantasies and Herzog somehow managed to make a plague of rats seem beautiful, Merhige's magic is smaller, more intimate, built on spooky dissolves and Dafoe's remarkable makeup, which does half the actor's work for him.
Ultimately, Shadow of the Vampire boils down to a battle between two vampires -- Murnau and Schreck -- and is a film that addresses the future of cinema as much as it is a document in thrall to the past. Watching the movie, it's impossible to forget that motion pictures are about capturing souls. More disturbingly, one must consider who is doing the capturing and what force -- masculine, feminine, other -- drives them to such an endeavor. Turn away, and you'll glimpse two madmen dissolving into caricature. Look closely, however, and you'll behold the dark heart of cinema made manifest.