Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000)
[originally posted 15Feb2001]
Elias Merhige’s first film, Begotten, is one of Nicolas Cage’s favorite movies. So when Cage started up his production company and financed his first flick, he called Merhige. He had other reasons, of course, but the rather tenuous connection has caused a number of people who have seen both movies to ask why Merhige came out of semi-retirement (and a lucrative business designing stage sets and directing creepy videos for Marilyn Manson) to work on a film that’s as commercially accessible as Begotten was commercially deadly?
The obvious reason that no one seems to have come up with is that Merhige is one of only two living directors who’s made a major silent film, and Mel Brooks would have been inappropriate for the material. The less obvious reason is that Merhige’s favorite trope, the long repetition cut, makes itself known in this movie. It’s far more subtle than it was in Begotten—no ten-minute shots of robed figures dragging Son of Earth up a hill in this one. But as in Begotten, there are long, loving shots of landscape (and I use the term loosely; the most noticeable shot like this focuses on different parts of a train for a few minutes) with action going on around them that has nothing, really to do with the landscape whatsoever. The juxtaposition is just out-of-kilter enough to add a veneer of disturbance. With the increased action in this film, the viewer is less compelled to focus on the juxtaposition, and thus less disturbed; but for this film, in the back of the mind is enough.
Much has been made (and very rightly so) of Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Count Orlok, who takes on the persona of character actor Max Schreck through a shady deal with obsessed film director F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich). Dafoe does a fantastic job not only of playing Count Orlok as a vampire who’s forced by his own greed into contact with humans he can’t kill, but he also takes the silent-film exaggeration of expression and uses it in a sound film. It’s unexpected, and it’s wonderful. Dafoe is quite deserving of his est Supporting Actor nomination, but if you’re a betting man, remember that Dafoe was overlooked for his two finest roles (in The Last Temptation of Christ and To Live and Die in L.A.).
All the flap over Dafoe’s brilliance has unfortunately eclipsed some of the minor performances in the movie which are equally as brilliant, e.g. Udo Kier as the perpetually-stressed producer Albin Grau, Catherine McCormack as the spoiled and bitchy star of the film, Eddie Izzard as her co-star, and Cary Elwes as a replacement cameraman (after the original, played by Ronan Vibert, is sent to the hospital thanks to Orlok’s inability to, erm, contain himself) whose arrival on the scene is the catalyst that sets everything in motion.
Elwes’ role, and the way his arrival changes the dynamic of the film set, is the one piece of this film that elevates it from an amusing, hyperbolic character sketch of a director who will go to any lengths to get his film to a piece of art. While Elwes himself is about as subtle as a cold chisel to the ear, the effects of his coming are masked by his (and those around him) aping until the final scene, when the true implications of the whole mess come to light. The final scene is so beautifully set up, and so well constructed, that the payoff would have been worth any number of errors. Fortunately, we have very few to contend with, most of which have nothing to do with the film itself (the person who composed the main title credits, for example, should be exiled from Hollywood forevermore).
As a side note, the actual scenes we see Murnau directing are quite close to the scenes in the original. Given the flights of fantasy used in other parts of the film, this is a detail that could have easily been overlooked, but it wasn’t. Kudos.
While it’s not Begotten—nothing that’s come out since has equaled the artistry and beauty of Begotten—one can’t say by any means that Merhige found himself in a sophomore slump. To the contrary, the accessibility, the likability, of this film is astonishing, given the endurance-test qualities of Begotten. Very highly recommended. ****