Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that three films in the last month — Unbreakable, The Gift, and now Shadow of the Vampire — have cast the supernatural as normal, the paranormal as real. Or perhaps it springs from the cultural zeitgeist surrounding young filmmakers like Shyamalan, Raimi, and Shadow‘s director E. Elias Merhige, members (or just about) of a generation — mine — that is more likely to believe in UFOs than that Social Security will be around when it’s our turn to retire. Nothing is outrageous to us — it’s all so down-to-earth in that shrugging, what’re-ya-gonna-do kind of way. I mean: People are worshipping, literally, Elian Gonzalez, a little kid who floated in with the tide on a life preserver. You couldn’t make that stuff up if you tried.
So it does sorta makes sense that we’d treat even the wildest, out-there bizarreness with a deadpan reality. Like, what if the dude who played Nosferatu in that great old 1922 silent German horror movie was actually really a vampire? Cool.
And that’s Shadow of the Vampire, written with cocky aplomb by Steven Katz. But instead of the serious drama of Unbreakable and The Gift, Shadow shoots for satire, and hits the bulls-eye dead center. So wicked sharp is Shadow that its humor — which is as dry as the Sahara — slices through you like those nasty paper cuts manila folders inflict.
The peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of artists and wannabes are the object of Shadow‘s satire, not surprisingly. German filmmaker F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich: The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Being John Malkovich) is obsessed with realism — “thank God for an end to this artifice,” he proclaims as his cast and crew are about to leave a Berlin studio to pick up the shooting of Nosferatu in the Bavarian mountains, on location, an unheard-of extravagance in the early days of film. Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe: American Psycho, Affliction), the actor who will be playing the vampire, will meet them all on location, though Murnau warns his cast — including his leading lady, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack: Dangerous Beauty, Braveheart), and his leading man, Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard: Mystery Men, The Avengers) — that Schreck will only appear in costume and in full makeup. Oh, and he’ll only film at night.
If it sounds a little like Bowfinger, the Steve Martin/Frank Oz lampoon of moviemaking, it’s because the comparison is apt — the larger-than-life personalities often found in front of and behind the camera are always ripe for picking. “Genius, utter genius!” Albin Grau (Udo Kier: End of Days, The End of Violence), the film’s producer, declares of the casting of Schreck, once he makes his appearance, with his spidery fingers, demonic grin, and pointed ears. But fawning producers and demanding directors are not Shadow‘s only targets, oh no. Dafoe’s skulking performance is one-note, but what a note it is — he sends up Method acting with his creepy demeanor alone. Izzard is a perfectly overblown histrionic silent actor, and McCormack has the prima-donna act down to a cool science. Cary Elwes (Cradle Will Rock, Twister) as cameraman Fritz Wagner is an offhand wiseguy, whether he’s expounding on the joys of slow motion or flirting perfunctorily with Greta.
Malkovich is frightening simply as himself, and it’s all too easy to believe that his Murnau — dressed on the set in goggles and a white lab coat, mad-scientist long — would go to fatal lengths in his “battle to make art.” And Dafoe is effortlessly disturbing as a creature inexorably drawn to kill… okay, to kill his coworkers. The black comedy wins out over horror in the end, because whether Shadow of the Vampire is parodying the expendability of the screenwriter, actors who choose their roles in order to meet a particular actress, or the artist’s need to publicly work out personal demons, it can’t help but succeed. Because we all know that the movies are an industry that demands not only your blood, sweat, and tears but also your soul, and those of us who want in give it all willingly.