Why “Shadow of the Vampire” Sucked The Lifeblood Out of “Nosferatu”
Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is the most famous gothic horror story about real estate. It’s intermittently creepy, but you know what would make it a lot scarier? If the Count, instead of an aristocratic gentleman perfectly at home in Victorian parlor rooms, were a ghastly, clawed revenant from some elder age of the earth.
German director F.W. Murnau didn’t change much about Stoker’s novel when he made his silent classic Nosferatu. The visit to the castle, the real estate purchase, the bloody journey by ship, the madness of the Renfield figure, and the targeting of the female characters are largely the same; the death of the Count differs, and Murnau changed places and names to avoid legal entanglements with the Stoker estate, but the only really significant change was to the vampire himself. Instead of a dapper nobleman, he is a horrifying lich.
That one changed proved decisive. The 1922 Nosferatu remains, in the opinion of many film critics and horror fans and Flickchart users, the best Dracula adaptation to date. Even more tellingly, perhaps, subsequent filmmakers have sometimes chosen to adapt Nosferatu rather than the original Stoker story! Werner Herzog did it in 1979 with his frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu the Vampyre. In 2000, E. Elias Merhige directed an all-star “making-of” dramatization called Shadow of the Vampire. Just this week, production house Studio 8 announced that Sundance honoree Robert Eggers (The Witch) will direct a new version of Nosferatu. In many circles, this news is far more exciting than a new movie bearing the Dracula name would be.
Yet there is a reason for caution as well as optimism because not all editions of Nosferatu are good. In particular, the 2000 film by Merhige failed to capitalize on an excellent premise and well-chosen cast.
The big idea is this: the 1922 Nosferatu was so scary because its vampire was played by a real vampire, not an actor. The man who portrayed the Count in Murnau’s movie had the improbable name Max Schreck – Schreck means “fright” in German. This coincidence, and Schreck’s exceptional performance, gave rise to the fun meta-theory before Merhige decided to make a film of it.
The name E. Elias Merhige has a suspicious ring about it, too – it anagrams to Lise Hagemeier, Ilse Hagemeier, and Hagemeier Lies, among other possibilities – but Merhige has two other film credits on Flickchart, so it’s probably legit.
For being a near-unknown, Merhige assembled a spectacular cast for Shadow. The slightly-askew John Malkovich portrayed Nosferatu director F.W. Murnau. He alone knows that the Count (played by Willem Dafoe, whose skeletal face suits the role) is a real vampire. Cary Elwes and Eddie Izzard have smaller roles as a cinematographer and actor, respectively.
It should work. But it doesn’t, and it fails because Steven Katz, the screenwriter who has almost as few credits as Merhige, misunderstands what makes the Schreck-was-a-vampire theory appealing. The idea is that Schreck was not acting; what you see on screen in Nosferatu is, the theory goes, reality: Schreck was a stiff, staring, silent demon straight from the uncanny valley. When Murnau’s cameras went off and the other actors dropped character, the vampire was still the vampire. He could be nothing else.
In Shadow, by contrast, there is a gap between the vampire’s film persona and the off-camera reality. This raises the question: why did Murnau cast a real vampire if the vampire was going to have to “act” for him? Dafoe goes grumblingly about the business of acting the part just as if he were a mortal, human actor collecting a paycheck. When Malovich’s Murnau yells action, Dafoe’s Count mutes his persona to match Murnau’s vision: the vision we all recognize as Schreck’s eerily lifeless Count. Yet when the in-movie cameras stop, Dafoe comes alive, stomping around and snarking to Murnau about this and that and whose blood he’s going to suck when the movie wraps. If a vampire has to be an actor to play a vampire, there is no point to his being there. It’s merely an irresponsible casting choice.
Dafoe’s Count doesn’t feel ancient, the way Schreck’s did. He’s quite sharp and witty, in fact. Why eat the screenwriter, who has yet to finish the script, when you could eat the inconsequential script girl, Murnau demands. “Oh, the script girl. I’ll eat her later,” Dafoe’s Count replies, right on cue. Schreck’s vampire would have stared uncomprehendingly at the question. It’s the difference between horror and comedy.
Dafoe should have been stiff and wordless irrespective of whether Murnau’s cameras were on him. The meta-theory about Schreck would thus have been done justice, and Shadow would have avoided falling into the campy, schlocky, hammy territory in which it mostly stays. It might even have recreated the horror of the silent film. Merhige’s cameras were capable of it: they employ iris lenses, black and white photography, and interstitial dialogue cards just as Murnau’s film did. The actors had the talent, especially Izzard who seems strangely at home in his silent scenes. It’s the script that fails them.
It didn’t fail entirely. Katz wrote one excellent monologue for his vampire. Asked whether he enjoyed the novel Dracula, Dafoe’s Count gives a sensitive glimpse into the mind of a lonely immortal. “He has to feed [a guest], when he himself hasn’t eaten food in centuries. Can he even remember how to buy bread? How to select cheese and wine? And then he remembers the rest of it. How to prepare a meal, how to make a bed. He remembers his first glory, his armies, his retainers, and what he is reduced to.”
Shadow of the Vampire could have showed that struggle, or at least created a version of the Count who felt like he had been through it. But Dafoe’s Count hasn’t missed a beat in his hundreds of years of blood-sucking. He’s too sharp, too poised, to make good on the premise of the film. He’s no Nosferatu. He’s just another Dracula.
Nosferatu movies on Flickchart
- Globally ranked #227
- Wins 49% of matchups
- 8 users have it at #1
- 138 users have it in their top 20
Nosferatu the Vampire (1979)
- Globally ranked #676
- Wins 51% of matchups
- 0 users have it at #1
- 33 users have it in their top 20
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
- Globally ranked #1525
- Wins 42% of matchups
- 2 users have it at #1
- 25 users have it in their top 20