For those who haven't heard of it, Shadow of the Vampire is a Long Shot Films production in association with (among others) BBC Films. For me, this explains a lot. I like British movies, but for some reason I tend to come away from them wondering whether half the script got lost under the couch. The Full Monty didn't feel as if it had a third act, ditto Notting Hill. And now we have Shadow of the Vampire, which in script length feels like a 45-minute episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's deliciously made, but it's a slight story that never strays far from its one-line summary. "Murnau filmed Nosferatu with a real vampire!" Cool! ...except that I've just described this movie in its entirety. Murnau films Nosferatu with a real vampire. The end.
However that's my only grumble. I loved every other aspect of this movie.
The cast are, without exception, having a ball. I think John Malkovich had his fun muscles surgically removed sometime around 1980, but that doesn't stop him from jumping in with both feet as the increasingly barking F.W. Murnau. He's relishing it in his own Malkovichy way and great to watch. Eddie Izzard is brilliant in his pastiche of silent movie acting, especially when the mask slips and we see his character's unfeigned reactions to his freaky vampire co-star. He also looks spookily like the real Gustav von Wangenheim.
But best of all is Willem Dafoe, who's nothing like Schreck facially (that dude was deformed) but doesn't let that stop him for a moment. He's got the body language, he's got the make-up and he's having the time of his life. Man, I was wetting myself. Ironically he's a completely different vampire to Orlock in Nosferatu; Dafoe's can be downright chatty and is at times a surprisingly human character. It's a different kind of movie and a different plot function being fulfilled. Count Orlock was just a shambling, horrific monster and the ugliest vampire in horror history.
However Dafoe convinces you they're the same character, with the help of some awesome physical acting. He has almost as much screen presence as the original Schreck, which is high praise - and at times he's bloody hilarious! Mind you, I missed Schreck's colossal bat ears (which were the actor's real ears, I'll have you know). Clearly someone thought Dafoe would look goofy with Spock ears sticking out like NASA space telescopes. He was Oscar-nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for this film, you know, and those ears must be what got a Best Makeup Oscar nomination to go with it.
The cinematography is deliberately reminiscent of the silent movie style, even when we're not seeing faked-up silent footage through Murnau's hand-cranked 1921 camera. The movie uses a bleached colourless palette, kinda like Burton's Sleepy Hollow but with a more expressionist use of shadow and black. We've got lots of sepia tones and dark twenties suits. (Though occasionally we get a splash of strong red, e.g. Catherine McCormack's lipstick.) It looks great, though at times it drifts into that BBC period drama feel of Agatha Christie or Albert Campion. The original Nosferatu had a rough-edged documentary appearance that, frankly, no modern film could ever have reproduced. E. Elias Merhige doesn't even try and achieves a silent movie look in other ways instead.
This isn't a straightforward monster movie, but the story of a monomaniac movie-maker who's prepared to go to any lengths to get the film he wants. Dafoe's vampire is simultaneously an ancient, barely controlled menace and a gleeful little bastard who's like a child in a sweetshop. Of all the characters here, it's ironically the bloodsucker who displays the greatest emotional range. This film is a barrel of fun and quietly thoughtful to boot. Be prepared for a two-act script, but otherwise definitely recommended.