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Fright Fest 2018: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

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I don’t expect you to understand.

I’ve discussed Shadow of the Vampire – at some length – with some excellent podcasters, all of whom have considerably better insight into this movie than I. To find that full conversation, please click here. What follows truncates some of what you’ll hear there, along with some additional thoughts of my own. Standing on the shoulders of giants, etc. Thanks to James, Jack, and Daniel.

 What follows contains spoilers. Go watch the movie.

 Shadow of the Vampire is a seriously strange movie.

Made in 2000, directed by E. Elias Merhige and written by Steven Katz, Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalized account of the filming of 1922’s Nosferatu. It stars John Malkovich as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, the driven director determined to create his masterpiece vampire movie at any cost, and Willem Defoe as Max Shreck, the theatre actor Murnau has discovered to play the titular vampire. 

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And – I’m not kidding about the spoilers, folks – it turns out Shreck is a real vampire.

And I have to be honest, it’s a film I appreciate more than enjoy. There’s a coldness to it that I find hard to love, even as I marvel at its technical delivery. A good example of this is the way the movie transitions during the filming of the film-within-a-film, moving to sepia tones and a circular picture, as the 1922 movie would have looked. I suspect that even in 2000 it wasn’t a groundbreaking digital trick, but it is seamlessly executed and adds a layer of atmosphere to proceedings – even if, like me, you’ve never actually seen Nosferatu. At the same time, there’s a sterility to it that kept me at a distance, unable to feel like I was really falling into the story – which may, of course, have been the director’s intent.

Similarly, this is a very well cast movie, with Eddie Izzard a particularly inspired choice for Gustav van Wangenhiem – he’s a dead spit for the actor, once the costume and filters are applied – and a criminally underused Catherine McCormack (more on this later) as Greta, the lead female actor in Nosferatu. And the twin leads of Malkovich and Defoe are superb – Malkovich every bit the cold, brilliant, obsessive filmmaker, Defoe simply deranges as the ancient and pathetic Shreck.

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In fact, let’s talk about Defoe’s performance a bit more, because it is, for my money, the heart of the film, and the source of most of the joy I get from it.

Even by Defoe standards, it’s not subtle – or at least, it doesn’t appear so. In his first big confrontation with Malkovich, he is gurning outrageously, delivering lines most panto villains would blush at with a kind of fevered glee that manages to be so over the top it flips back into unsettling again. Malkovich helps, in that you can see his raw ambition for the movie battling somewhat with his distaste for, and discomfort with, his star. It’s a brilliant scene, and one you want to rewatch, just so you can focus on each actor’s performance, tease out the details of what they are doing. At the same time, it’s a good illustration of my earlier point about the coldness and the distance; here is Shreck, clearly a monster, and Murnau’s principal emotional reaction is not horror, or even disgust, but rather irritation. Again, it’s perfectly in character, but as a viewer, it made the whole scene feel a bit alienating, because no one in the scene was acting or reacting in a remotely relatable way. It would be like if Clarice was also a sociopath in the big Silence of the Lambs interview scene – it’s not bad, but it is hard to get a handle on, somehow.

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Still, Defoe sells it magnificently; both the grotesquery of the creature, and also his innate loneliness and pathetic nature. There’s, in particular, a dialogue scene with two of the filmmakers – probably my favourite single scene in the entire movie – where Defoe gives a gleefully unsettling interview, before breaking off mid-sentence, snatching a bat out of the air, and going full Ozzy, biting the head off and drinking the blood. It’s a genuinely horrifying moment, that only really becomes funny after Defoe leaves the scene, and one of the filmmakers turns to his friend to admiringly exclaim ‘What an actor!’

So, sure, that’s big, and broad. Similarly, his haughty behaviour on set is incredibly over-mannered and affected. All the same, underneath the bluster and posturing, there are subtleties – a sense of loneliness born of an age spent as a monster, shut off from human contact, of misery at the simple daily drudgery of life without obvious end. He is animalistic and selfish, but there is a pathetic pathos to him, as well.

And, of course, he wants Greta.

In a theme that echoes Bride Of Frankenstien, this monster desires a mate. This desire reinforces his monstrosity – the lust of an old man for youth and beauty – but also the monstrosity of director Marnau, who confesses that he’s made this deal with Shreck in exchange for securing his appearance in the movie. This leads to a genuinely disturbing final sequence, as the filmmaker’s drug Greta in order to also drug Shreck, hoping to sedate him enough that he can be exposed to sunlight and destroyed.

Which is where we circle back to the underuse of Catherine McCormack as Greta.

Because the truth is, she’s barely in the movie, aside from this climactic couple of scenes, and  in these scenes she’s basically a passive victim, being exploited by the (male) filmmakers for the gratification  of the (male) movie star, and she’s been drugged into the bargain, and yes, the movie was made in 2000, but watching this post #MeToo… it’s kinda gross.

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I mean, it’s meant to be. I don’t think the filmmakers intended prurience. I think we’re meant to feel sympathy for Greta, and horror at what she goes through. Still, it’s played too lightly to really hammer home the horror of her circumstances, the focus entirely on the male characters and their feelings and struggle, and yet the circumstance is too heavy, inherently, to really work for laughs, either. As Jack Graham pointed out in the above-linked podcast, the character Greta plays in the 1922 movie Nosferatu has more agency than the character of Greta as played by Catherine McCormack in 2000 does.

And yes, I am absolutely making an SJW type point here – probably virtue signalling into the bargian, sounds like the kind of thing I’d do – but there’s a more important point, for our purposes, which is this; fixing this problem would have made a better movie.

Almost any version of these final scenes that give Greta more agency just plain work better, more interestingly, in dramatic terms. She could refuse to go along with the plan, throwing the filmmakers into disarray and bringing the full monster out of Shreck. Or she could willingly go along with the plan, taking on the role of sacrifice to defeat evil, which would totally transform the stakes, as well as inject some much-needed pathos. But really, virtually anything that would have given this brilliant actor a bit more to do in the movie’s finale would have been much to the improvement of the plot and the experience as a whole.

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It would probably also have helped address the coldness I mentioned earlier, the strange alienating distance the film as a whole invokes in me. I hope you’ll get the sense from the above that there are ways in which this is a good film – or, at least, interesting, well made, and thought-provoking, worthy of your time – but it remains, for me, a hard movie to like, let alone love, and that sense of coldness is a big part of why.

Woulda been betta with more Gretta, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

KP–24/9/18

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Kit Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as front man (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo, www.disciplesofgonzo.com

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