Reality Bites: A Review of Shadow of the Vampire

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Reality Bites by Fiona Maazel  

From Stoker's to ABC’s ’60s soap opera “Dark Shadows,” to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampirism has proven to be a pliant metaphor for what it means to be human. It’s about intimacy, corruption, salvation, immortality, death. It’s about the impossibility of equalizing any kind of erotic relationship. It’s about drug addiction and STDs. And now, in E. Elias Merhige’s new film, Shadow of the Vampire — a fictive account of the making of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu — we’re told that vampirism is about filmmaking. But underlying all these metaphors is one consistent theme: erotic self-realization. For the vampire’s spell doesn’t afflict his victims from the outside, but simply brings out their true, hidden self. One little love bite, one exchange of bodily fluids, and his victims swoon, then release their latent desires.


In Shadow of the Vampire, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) is a real vampire fronting as a method actor. He agrees to “star” in Murnau’s film if he can devour its lead, the svelte junkie-actress Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack), when filming is over. Murnau (John Malkovich) agrees because, well, he’s a creative genius, and aren’t all geniuses prepared to sacrifice others so they might live? Vampire is as vampire does; that’s the premise. Schreck’s a real vampire, Murnau’s an artistic vampire — “you and I are not so different,” says the Nosferatu to Murnau — and there it is.


While the crew films their movie at the secluded island, Greta whiles away her time in Berlin. When she at last shows up for the location shoot, she’s a capricious diva — not exactly a traditional ingenue, but no sexpot either, at least not until she gets to the Nosferatu’s castle. There, some of the crew find her writhing in bed, touching herself moodily in sexual transports. When the cameraman blames her behavior on opium, he distracts us from what’s really at play here. After all, Greta’s been touched by a vampire.


Consider the word nosferatu’s disputed etymology: some think it derives from the Greek word nosophoros, which literally means “plague carrier” (nosos = plague), and more specifically, “mind carrier” (nos = mind). It’s as if the vampire afflicts his victims with his thoughts, which are, by nature, dirty — an infection that mimics the victim’s own hidden desires. Time and again we see vampire victims reduced to blubbering succubi, begging to be fucked in obscene ways. Think back to Coppola’s Lucy (in his odious 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula), who gets laid by a werewolf, and worse, loves every moment of it. Alternately, think of The Addiction, starring Lili Taylor as a drug addict–cum–grad-student vampire who, before she strikes, always says to her victims: “Look sin in the face and tell it to go away.” And of course, nobody can; nobody does; and more importantly, nobody wants to.


One of the misconceptions about vampirism is that there’s a disparity between the eroticism of the vampire and the lily-white innocence of its object. But the truth is: the vampire’s sexuality is no different from our own. Consider, for example, what Murnau says to Schreck in Jim Shepard’s wonderful novel Nosferatu: “I talked of how the terrible inhumanness of him, the nightmarish repulsiveness, should move easily among the bourgeois naturalism of the costumes and acting styles of the rest of the cast — how everyone must see him as in some ways not out of the ordinary.” Not out of the ordinary: the vampire is among and possibly a part of us; this thing of darkness we should acknowledge as our own.


In most vampire films, the coveted female has to acknowledge her kinship with the vampire; she must open her windows, doors, arms, heart to him before he can actually take her. And Murnau’s Nosferatu is no exception. Towards the end of the film, the camera lingers on the vampire in his own home, face framed by an open window appositely barred with iron rungs, as he ogles Ellen, who lives across the street. He looks caged and almost touching in his loneliness. Ellen swoons, but finally throws her windows open, signaling him to come and take her. It’s a scene straight out of Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers share a private language reserved for people who belong together. And when they couple in private, the film seems to ask: what could be more normal?


The original Nosferatu suggests an intimacy between good and evil by frequently cross-cutting from Ellen to the vampire, and by having her speak to him in a tongue which only he (and not her husband) seems to understand. When she rushes out of her home as the vampire and her husband approach, saying, “I must go to him; he is coming,” the pronoun is notably ambiguous. Lord knows whom she’s talking about, but given her willingness to seduce the vampire, it might very well be him. Furthermore, as novelist Shepard points out, the intertitle announcing the end of the plague appears only after Ellen dies, and four scenes after the Nosferatu perishes. The implication? Ellen is the problem, not the vampire. She is the corrupting agent, and the discrepancy between what she is (vulgar) and what she’s supposed to be (the Ingenue) upsets a conventional moral paradigm. Convention says that we fall into sin when the vampire gets us. And this is bad. But to be sinful from the get-go, well, that’s intolerable.


If you’re even remotely interested in Murnau, head straight for the bookstore and buy Jim Shepard’s Nosferatu. If you don’t care at all about such things, I would still suggest Shepard’s novel, if only because it has an infinitely more intelligent take on what makes Nosferatu and vampirism in general so interesting. Merhige’s film, for all its ambitions, doesn’t exactly advance the vampire genre or add to its splendor. It tells us nothing we don’t know already and is chock full of the requisites: the Artist perseveres; the Vampire drools; the Lady vanishes. Furthermore, the film is a little dumb. Given its superb casting and an amalgam of fertile ideas to play with, it could have been fun. Instead, we’ve got a hammy, periodically silly, and condescendingly banal manifesto about authenticity.


True, the film periodically attempts to spoof the vampire genre, but such attempts comes off as silly and simply undercut the film’s basic tensions. Schreck seems as harmless as Count Chocula and he certainly lacks the predatory quality native to the undead. He camps it up, whines and snarls a great deal, and occasionally quibbles with Murnau about the script and his lack of makeup. His performance coupled with several ridiculous scenes of tepid bloodlust and water-cooler tiffs (Murnau abandoning Teutonic reserve to berate the vampire for murdering his crew and ruining his picture) sabotage the film’s agenda by making it comically unfunny.


But so be it. Shadow of the Vampire does few things well, but if it persuades one person to rent Nosferatu, to experience the real Max Schreck’s performance in all its wonderment, it will have done something useful. After all this time, Nosferatu remains the archetype for an entire genre of movie that habitually debunks myths about purity, both sexual and artistic. Call it lore or apocrypha — either way it suggests that as of 2001, we are more prepared than ever to redefine deviance as the norm, or at the very least, to recalibrate our sense of where corruption ends and purity begins. Murnau did it in 1922. Seventy-eight years later, and we’re still biting his style.

Shadow of the Vampire

Lions Gate Films

Written by Steven Katz

Directed by E. Elias Merhige

©2001 Fiona Maazel and Nerve.com, Inc.