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Bruce Markusen Discusses the Underrated Nosferatu Film ‘Shadow of the Vampire’ from 2000

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As much as I love the classic and vintage horror films from the 1930s through the 1970s, I will fight to the death anyone who claims that contemporary horror of the 21st century is somehow substandard or lacking in quality. In fact, I have often argued that we’re in the midst of one of the glorious eras of horror, especially when including the original series and films that have been produced by Netflix, Shudder, and the established cable and over-the-air networks. Films like Get Out, The Conjuring, Dr. Sleep, the new version of The Invisible Man, and Hereditary, along with TV shows like “Hannibal”, “Penny Dreadful”, and “The Walking Dead” have all put horror in a good place this century, with no signs that the quality of good productions will be slowing down any time soon.

Technically, the year 2000 didn’t mark the beginning of this new century—that would have been 2001—but most people look back at 2000 as a symbolic turning of the page. From the perspective of horror, it was a solidly good year that featured a quartet of particularly strong films, including American Psycho, which unleashed Christian Bale on an unsuspecting city of New York amidst a late-1980s backdrop; Ginger Snaps, a werewolf film that has developed a remarkable cult following; and What Lies Beneath, an atmospheric ghost story that starred two heavy-hitting actors in Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer.

A fourth film from 2000 has become a particular favorite of mine. It’s never generated the headlines of American Psycho or the cult audience of Ginger Snaps, but it’s a fascinating film that blends a fictional story with the true-life tale of the making of perhaps the first great horror film of the 20th century, Nosferatu. It was in December of 2000 that the underrated Shadow of the Vampire made its theatrical debut, thereby bringing renewed interest to the ancient Nosferatu, along with its star Max Schreck and its director, F.W. Murnau.

Shadow of the Vampire 2000 Still

Shadow of the Vampire centers on the 1921 filming of Nosferatu, a silent film based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel that would come out in 1922. Shadow of the Vampire stars the talented and quirky Willem Dafoe as Schreck, the actor portraying the horrid and grotesque vampire named Graf Orlok. Shortly after Dafoe’s Orlok/Schreck arrives at the filming location in Czechoslovakia, he finds himself butting heads with director Murnau, played by another brilliant actor, John Malkovich. Fully known to Malkovich’s Murnau, but unknown to the other members of the crew (at least initially) is that Schreck is an actual vampire! Murnau believes that the vampire/actor will bring an unprecedented level of realism to the film—and that he does. As the production continues, some crew members turn up ailing—and eventually dead. Those occurrences, along with the bizarre appearance and behavior of Schreck, who never appears to come out of costume or character, eventually lead the rest of the crew to believe that an actual vampire has descended onto the set to put everyone’s lives at risk.

In the wrong hands, thrusting a supernatural creature onto a conventional movie set could make for a comical effect. But that is not the case with Shadow of the Vampire. First, Malkovich’s Murnau clearly believes that Schreck is a vampire, and does his best to keep that fact hidden from his cast and crew. Even more importantly, Dafoe makes the unusual characterization work, which came as no surprise to screenwriter Steven Katz, who wrote the Schreck role specifically for Dafoe. The makeup applied to Dafoe is wonderful; it includes a bald head, a set of large ears, a pointed nose, and lengthy fingernails, all of which creates the appearance of a Nosferatu-like vampire. But it’s really Dafoe’s all-round performance that convinces us: the accent and dialect, the mannerisms, the primitive behavior, and the fits of temper.

Dafoe’s character also provides a number of clues as to his true identity, simply based on his odd behavior. During the filming of a dinner scene, director Murnau shouts and startles one of his actors (played by Eddie Izzard), causing him to cut his finger. Schreck reacts frantically, grabbing Izzard’s hand violently and attempting to drink the blood from the wound. In another scene, Murnau admonishes Schreck for his repeated attacks against members of the crew, one of whom has been left at the cusp of death.

Shadow of the Vampire 2000 Nosferatu

In particular there is a wonderful scene in which Dafoe’s Schreck snatches a flying bat out of midair and then bites into it instantaneously, draining it of blood within a matter of seconds. This remarkable display takes place in the presence of two other shocked cast members. The two witnesses, still oblivious to the vampire in their presence, praise Schreck for his skilled acting and ability to remain in character. But it’s obvious to us as viewers that Schreck has become one of the undead. Thanks to scenes like this, it is Dafoe who steals the show, delivering one of the best performances of a varied and ranging career. Dafoe alone makes Shadow of the Vampire a must-see.

The whole storyline of a vampire pretending to be an actor is a creative one, which was devised by screenwriter Katz. But Katz did not compose such a wild story out of whole cloth; no, he borrowed from the actual history of the making of Nosferatu. Shortly after Nosferatu debuted in German theaters in 1922, rumors circulated that Schreck, the film’s lead, was actually a vampire in real life. In today’s more skeptical era, such rumors would have been dismissed quickly and with laughter. But in the 1920s, at a time when vampires were still relatively little-known creatures, with an aura of mystery to them, people were more willing to believe such stories about Schreck.

An even wilder rumor stipulated that not only was Schreck a vampire, but that Nosferatu was the only film in which he starred. (Perhaps this was because some filmgoers believed that Schreck truly died at the end of the film.) This rumor was even more preposterous, given that Schreck was already a well-known actor by the time that Nosferatu was filmed, having appeared in numerous movie and stage productions.

Shadow of the Vampire Nosferatu Image 1

Deciding to run with these rumors, Shadow of the Vampire director E. Elias Merhige made the story of Schreck as a real-life vampire the primary theme of the film. Under the capable direction of Merhige, the film pulls off the story quite convincingly, in a believable and horrifying way.

Of course, Schreck was not a vampire in real life—at least not one with supernatural powers, with a corresponding need to drink blood and stay out of the sun. Schreck was a highly skilled actor, one who immersed himself in the role and came across so convincingly as Orlok that it made the rumors about him seem a bit more credible. One of Germany’s leading actors, Schreck would continue to make films throughout the 1920s and 1930s. With his career in its prime, and with seemingly years of acting ahead of him, he then suffered a heart attack in 1939 and passed away. He was only 56 years old.

Schreck’s performance in Nosferatu, coupled with the directing of Murnau, has resulted in remakes, including the 1979 feature film, Nosferatu the Vampyre, starring the talented but troubled Klaus Kinski. That same year, the made-for-TV miniseries, “Salem’s Lot” featured a vampire that looked eerily like Schreck’s vampire, with its bald head, pointed ears, and jagged teeth, all part of a genuinely ugly and horrifying creature.

Shadow of the Vampire Nosferatu Image 2

As good as Kinski was in Nosferatu the Vampyre and as effective as Reggie Nalder was in “Salem’s Lot2, Dafoe reaches new heights with his portrayal of Schreck/Orlok. Dafoe is also supported well by Malkovich, whose manic frustration with Schreck builds beautifully throughout the film, and veteran actors like Udo Kier and Cary Elwes. The relatively little known Catherine McCormack capably handles the role of Greta Schroeder, who becomes the main target of Schreck’s morbid attraction.

Other than a tepid ending, Shadow of the Vampire has few flaws. It should come as no surprise that the movie was nominated for two Academy Awards. Dafoe received a nomination for best supporting actor, while Ann Buchanan and Amber Simbley earned nominations for best makeup. None of the nominees won, which is likely more of a commentary about the lack of respect given to horror films rather than a true indication of the excellent work that Dafoe, Buchanan, and Simbley delivered.

Without question, Shadow of the Vampire is a terrific film. It becomes even better if you first watch its source material, Nosferatu, and see how director Merhige tried to mirror several scenes from the original film. His research efforts, along with the acting, the makeup, and the creative storyline all make Shadow of the Vampire a modern day classic.


Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.

RELATED: BRUCE MARKUSEN RANKS 5 OF THE BEST DRACULA MOVIES

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