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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Willem Dafoe Casts Impressive Vampire Shadow
by Betty Jo Tucker

When German director F. W. Murnau filmed Nosferatu back in 1922, he opened the door for dozens of similar vampire movies to follow. His silent horror classic led to portrayals of the Count Dracula character by such diverse actors as Bela Lugosi, Frank Langella, Klaus Kinski, Gary Oldman, Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Udo Kier, Frances Lederer, George Hamilton, Leslie Nielsen, and Gerard Butler. Before seeing Shadow of the Vampire, I didnít think it was possible for anyone to add something new to this frightening role. But Willem Dafoe changed my mind completely.

Because of problems with Bram Stokerís estate, Murnau called his vampire Count Orlok. In this fictionalized version of the making of Nosferatu, Dafoe (Mississippi Burning) triumphantly goes over the top as Max Schreck, the directorís daring choice for Orlok. Alternately projecting smoldering passion and sinister glee, this unconventional actor holds nothing back as a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire. Dafoe kept me fascinated during all his incredible scenes --- whether clicking his clawlike fingernails, eating a bat caught speedily in midair, or admiring the neck of a beautiful actress. If he doesnít get an Oscar nomination, thereís no justice in the world!

Dafoeís weird costume and mysterious aura transform him into a grotesque creature who keeps everyone guessing about his identity. Joking with me about his terrifying image during filming, Dafoe said, "We were on location in a little Luxembourg village, and you can imagine how children coming home from school were frightened when they saw me as this horrible creature emerging from the forest."

In the role of filmmaker Murnau, John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich) excels also. Especially convincing while talking to Murnauís players as they emote for the silent movie camera, Malkovich made me realize that a perfectionist director might be tempted to push creativity to unfortunate extremes. Still, although hiring a real vampire and promising him the leading lady (when he completes the film) may not be good judgment, it results in artistic moviemaking --- at least until Schreck starts feeding on the cast and crew.

A strong, witty script by first-time screenwriter Steven Katz and inspired direction by Elias Merhige contribute to the appeal of this campy film. As a movie buff, I love its depiction of behind-the-scenes action. When Schreck calls out for "make-up!" and Murnau tells him, "Well, you canít have any," itís only one of many unforgettable moments.

Because I saw Murnauís film the night before viewing Shadow of the Vampire, I was amazed by Merhigeís success in finding actors so closely resembling the original Nosferatu cast. The best look-alike is British comic Eddie Izzard (Mystery Men) as Gustav von Wangenheim, the actor playing Nosferatuís hapless hero. And Catherine McCormack (Dangerous Beauty) appears physically very similar to Greta Schroder, the self-absorbed actress playing the vampireís object of desire.

In my opinion, Shadow of the Vampire is a remarkable study of obsessive filmmaking that ranks as one of the best movies of the year.

(Released by Lions Gate Films and rated "R" for some sexuality, drug content, violence and language.)

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