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If you think about it, it’s been quite the short, strange trip for writer/director E. Elias Merhige. He first came to the public eye with the notoriously grungy, splatterific Begotten (1990), the kind of experimental art film that Kenneth Anger made his domain in the ’60s. Rather legendary among daring genre aficionados, Begotten was the kind of thing that got passed around on bad VHS tapes and posted online in various pieces: equal parts Anger, Lynch, Jodorowsky and Cronenberg, Begotten will never be anyone’s idea of a good time but it ended up being a great calling card for Merhige, since it gave him an unbeatable underground buzz. After following this up with a couple music videos for Marilyn Manson during his “Antichrist Superstar”-era, Merhige would return to the big screen for his most accomplished film, the multiple award nominee/winner Shadow of the Vampire (2000).

After Shadow of the Vampire became a hit, it seemed only natural that Merhige would capitalize on the momentum but it took him four years to follow it up: arriving in 2004, the “serial-killer-killing-serial-killers” flick Suspect Zero had an appropriately pulply, intriguing logline but the film, itself, was universally derided as being strictly by-the-numbers filmmaking. With only one short since that time, Merhige appears to have dropped off the map, leaving us with one semi-legendary experimental film, one bonafide neo-classic and a multiplex fizzle. Despite this incredibly small body of work, however, Merhige has staked out his own unique place in the history of genre filmmaking: any career that includes Shadow of the Vampire could, reasonably, be considered a roaring success.

Existing as a bit of cheeky revisionist history, Merhige’s sophomore movie takes a look at the filmmaking process behind legendary German auteur F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). In a gonzo little bit of “what if”-ism, the film posits that Murnau (John Malkovich) actually used a real vampire in the role of Count Orlock, the mysterious, ratlike and boundlessly creepy Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe). Keeping the information from his clueless cast and crew, Murnau seeks to make his vampire film the most realistic it can be, possibly in response to being denied the rights to shoot an adaptation of Dracula by Bram Stoker’s estate.

Murnau passes his “star” off as an eccentric master actor who completely submerses himself into his roles, to the point where he “assumes” the identities of his characters. The cast and crew are to address Schreck as “Count Orlock” and are advised to give him a wide berth when not filming: as Murnau tells them, he has little interest in their conversations, praise or questions, since he’s “chasing his own ghosts.” While this strikes Murnau’s group (consisting of producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier), writer Henrik Galeen (Aden Gillett), cinematographer Wolfgang Muller (Ronan Vibert), assistant camera-man Paul (Nicholas Elliot) and lead actor Gustav von Wangenhein (Eddie Izzard)) as odd, they’re all used to Murnau’s eccentric way of working and just think it’s all just a way to build mood, like his insistence on shooting on location, rather than on a studio set.

As plans go, however, using a real vampire in your vampire film isn’t the greatest and the iron-fisted Murnau ends up running into one set-back after another, not the least of which is the fact that cranky, old vampires make really shitty actors: as Schreck continues to ad-lib, screw up scenes, ask for motivation and complain about countless bits of minutiae, the ever-hassled director watches his project increasingly fall to bits. Under the gun from his high-strung, bottom-line-oriented producer and in constant fear of having the project taken from him, Murnau can’t deal with any more setbacks. After the vampire snacks on Wolfgang, forcing Murnau to replace him with the zany Fritz Arno Wagner (Cary Elwes), however, the exasperated director has had just about enough: after all, the selfish vampire wasn’t even considerate enough to “take the script girl,” as Murnau complains…he went right for the “essential personnel.” As the rest of the cast and crew begin to suspect something’s rotten in Denmark, Murnau and Schreck continue to feint, verbally spar and test one another’s resolves. Things may look dire but Murnau is nothing if not dedicated and he’s determined to make his movie, even if it kills everyone around him…and that this rate…it just might!

From the very beginning, Shadow of the Vampire is a fascinating, visually sumptuous and ingeniously edited film: indeed, the opening 5-minute credit sequence, consisting of various murals and drawings, is like its own mini-film, giving a brief overview of not only key events in the general Dracula mythology but also thematic and underlying elements that will inform the film, itself. I specifically mention the editing, since Chris Wyatt’s work here is some of the most impressive I’ve ever seen: the way in which black and white shots blend into color cinematography is eye-popping but just as impressive are the subtle transitions, the ways in which the still images appear to have their own sense of movement, of life. It’s one of the very few times while watching a film that I’ve actively singled out the editing but it’s so masterfully done that it becomes another aspect of the film, rather than the “invisible” part of the filmmaking machine.

The sense of invention displayed in the opening is omnipresent in the film, leading to some genuinely delightful, weird moments: Murnau’s visit to a stylish sex club/drug den is a highlight, even if the scene, itself, makes little sense and Schreck’s underground “lair” is a marvel of strange production design that appears to include either an enormous spider-web or a gigantic iris…either one would fit, even if neither one make much sense, in context. In some ways, the production design reminds of Ken Russell, in particular his Lair of the White Worm (1988) and the filmmakers make terrific use of their creepy, atmospheric castle location.

As mentioned, one of the film’s most delightful visual quirks is the pronounced separation between the “real world,” which is in vibrant color, and the “filmed world,” which is in black and white. In some case, the film transitions between the two effortlessly, as if the black and white footage is being colorized before our eyes. Other times, we go in the opposite direction, as if the life and color is being bleached from the real world: not a bad symbol for vampirism, if you think about it.

As good as the film looks, however, it’s the extraordinary cast that really takes this all the way. Shadow of the Vampire is filled with vibrant, interesting characters, from Eddie Izzard’s wonderful take on the lunk-headed Gustav to Catherine McCormack’s “flapper with attitude” Greta to the dashing, utterly ridiculous creation that is Elwes’ Fritz Arno Wagner. We get the ever dependable Udo Kier doing his usual take on fastidious distraction, while Aden Gillett does some great work as the ever patient, ever indulgent writer.

The MVPs here, however, are undoubtedly Malkovich and Dafoe, two of the most interesting actors in the history of the medium. While I initially felt as if the roles should have been switched (in my head, I definitely see Dafoe as the dictatorial director, while Malkovich seems like a lock for the creepy, eccentric vampire, although this could also be based on recent roles), there’s no doubt that each actor makes the character his own. Our first sight of Malkovich, wearing tiny black goggles and endlessly cranking his camera, is a real doozy and sets the stage for everything that follows: he’s a constant blur of mischievous energy, all nervous twitches, half-smiles and sudden, angry shouting. The bit where he coaches Gustav through a scene only to force him to cut himself with a knife, for “reality,” is superb and his performance in the finale is suitably unhinged.

While Malkovich is always “Malkovich” in the film, regardless of how awesome that might be, Dafoe is completely unrecognizable as Schreck, which ends up being a nifty hat trick for an actor with such a defined persona as his. Nonetheless, he’s superb: feral, rat-like and even a little sympathetic, at times, Schreck is a magnetic personality and it’s impossible to tear our eyes from him. While the makeup work is absolutely uncanny, it’s the subtlest things that really draw out Dafoe’s performance: in particular, he does so much with just his eyes and posture (our first sight of Schreck, stiff-armed and with talon-like fingernails, is absolutely made by Dafoe’s creepy, weird, stiff-legged gait, makeup notwithstanding) that it immediately reminds us of what a truly talented actor he is. Not surprisingly, Dafoe would go on to be nominated (and win) multiple times for his performance, including an Oscar Nomination which he ultimately lost to Benicio del Toro for Traffic (2000). There’s something completely otherworldly about Dafoe’s performance which helps sell the character of Schreck part-and-parcel.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how explicitly humorous it is. While not, technically, a comedy, so much of the film is precipitated on some truly funny scenes (the bit where they struggle to get Schreck to deliver his lines is priceless, as is the truly great scene where Schreck complains about how “unrealistic” Dracula is) that the humor definitely becomes a noticeable part of the film. In certain ways, Shadow of the Vampire melds the behind-the-filmmaking-scenes humor of something like Living in Oblivion (1995) with a more traditional vampire narrative, resulting in a rather unique little combination. Combine this with the way the film effortlessly blurs the lines between fact and fiction (every one of the characters are actually based on real people, even if their individual actions are decidedly suspect) and Shadow of the Vampire ends up being a nicely original, individualistic piece of work.

Ultimately, Shadow of the Vampire is extremely well-made but it’s also a whole lot of fun, which may be the most important factor. While he doesn’t entirely turn his back on his debut (the black and white attack on Greta definitely feels like something from his Begotten-era), Merhige comes up with an intelligent, sassy and, at times, suitably outrageous, little bit of revisionist history that should be right up any genre fan’s alley. When the film is firing on all cylinders, it’s a real marvel. Here’s to hoping that Merhige returns from the woods, one of these days, and that he brings something like Shadow of the Vampire with him: witty, evocative and a real treat for film fans (especially fans of Murnau’s actual Nosferatu), this is one of those rare films that feels a lot older than it actually is, in all of the best possible way.