Shadow Of The Vampire

Shadow Of The Vampire (2000)
Universal Home Video
Cast: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Interviews, Photo Montages, Production Notes, Biographies, Trailers

Only a few defining images from the silent film era still remain as a part of our collective consciousness — Charlie Chaplin’s ambling gait, Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock tower, the robot Maria from "Metropolis," and, of course, Count Orlock rising up out of his coffin in "Nosferatu." Here we are closing in on seventy years since the release of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s horror classic and the film still stands as one of the finest vampire movies ever made. Many productions over the years, both big and small, have paid homage to "Nosferatu" but none has done it with as deliciously wicked a turn as E. Elias Merhige’s "Shadow of the Vampire."

"Shadow of the Vampire" stands as testament that inspired and original works of art are still possible within the usually suffocating confines of the Hollywood system. Under normal circumstances, it’s safe to assume that Steven Katz’s darkly comic work would have been relegated to the world of independent cinema where it may or may not have found a distributor. But none other than actor Nicolas Cage saw something special in this script and decided to make it the first production to come out of his new company, Saturn Films. Seeing similarities between E. Elias Merhige’s first feature movie, "Begotten," and the look-and-feel of the original "Nosferatu," Cage hand-picked Merhige to direct "Shadow of the Vampire."

Signing up John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe to tackle the two leading roles immediately elevated this film in the eyes of the critics and public alike and, while the film never did break out of its art house confines, "Shadow of the Vampire" received much positive acclaim and even garnered a couple of Academy Award nominations.

The film is a highly-stylized account of the making of "Nosferatu" that posits that the 1922 vampire movie was much closer to being truth than fiction. Director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is so driven in his quest to create the perfect motion picture that he knowingly hires a real vampire to play the title role in his production. As filming progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) is not able to completely curb his darker impulses and crew members soon begin to disappear. Rather than putting a stop this, Murnau instead finds inspiration in Schreck’s extracurricular activities and is willing to risk it all to capture this very real horror on film, begging th equestion as to who is the real vampire, feeding on other people’s lives?

Willem Dafoe was justly nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role as Max Schreck and he succeeds in bringing what had hitherto been a silent, mysterious character to life — so much so that I doubt I’ll ever again view the original "Nosferatu" in quite the same light. John Malkovich is his crazed best as the insane director with an over-the-top performance that lends real humor to this black comedy — although the fact that his German accent comes and goes is somewhat distracting. Rounding out the cast are Cary Elwes, the always beautiful Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, and Udo Kier.

"Shadow of the Vampire" is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, preserving the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the theatrical release. Let me start by saying that the film is exceedingly grainy from beginning to end. This was an artistic decision no doubt meant to lend a vintage air to the production and, as it is a constant presence, the grain is not terribly distracting after the first few moments.

The film takes place almost wholly at night and in dark surroundings and even intercuts original footage from the 1922 "Nosferatu." What this adds up to is a very demanding video transfer and the folks at Universal have handled the job capably. Black levels and contrast are perfectly balanced and work together to provide fine detail throughout the film. To get the most out of this video presentation a dimly lit viewing room is a must.

Colors are accurate as well with the dark, rich tones never getting lost amidst the blackness of the background scenery. As a new production it should come as no surprise that this transfer is also free from nicks and blemishes beyond those evident in the vintage film elements. This must have been a real bear to translate to DVD but the end result is a fine image that is true to the original theatrical presentation.

Audio comes in English and French-dubbed <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix>es as well as an English <$DTS,DTS> soundtrack. I was hard-pressed to detect any differences between the DD and DTS tracks as both are very solid efforts. This is an atmospheric mix that won’t tax your system but which does require well-calibrated equipment in order to catch every faint nuance of the soundtrack. Dynamic range is somewhat restrained with only the occasional low-level rumble to remind you that the subwoofer is on. Most importantly, dialogue is always clearly understood and is anchored firmly in the center of the very expansive front soundstage. Sound effects and the sweeping musical score swell up to encompass the listener and the surrounds are kept fairly active by the inclusion of faint atmospheric effects in even the quietest of scenes. Whether you choose DD or DTS you won’t be disappointed with this very solid audio presentation.

Fortunately for fans of the film, "Shadow of the Vampire" is also packed with extras even though it isn’t labeled as a Collector’s Edition. First up is a running commentary with director E. Elias Merhige. He obviously relished working on this project and his discussion of what exactly he was trying to accomplish adds greatly to an overall understanding of the film. His tone is very conversational and he rarely lapses into long stretches of silence.

Up next is a six-minute featurette that is really nothing more than a superficial promotional piece although the few behind-the-scenes peeks are interesting enough. Of much more value are the video interviews with Willem Dafoe, Nicolas Cage, and E. Elias Merhige. Dafoe talks mostly about the character he portrays while Cage is more focused on what it took for him to get this film made. Merhige’s comments very closely mirror those revealed in the commentary so his interview doesn’t really add much new information.

Next up are two photo montages that provide automated slideshows highlighting certain aspects of the production while Dan Jones’s score plays in the background. The first shows the progression from beginning to end as the Max Schreck make-up is applied to Willem Dafoe while the second offers a few additional behind-the-scenes images. This is followed by the obligatory production notes and cast and crew biographies and filmographies.

Rounding out the extras are theatrical trailers for "Shadow of the Vampire," "Gods and Monsters," "Red Violin," and "Begotten." This last trailer has to be one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. "Begotten" is a brutal, unflinching interpretation of religious themes all set within a grotesque framework of shockingly surreal black and white imagery. It’s not hard to see why it’s creator was tapped to tackle this retelling of "Nosferatu."

"Shadow of the Vampire" is a highly enjoyable romp but, while viewers can certainly appreciate the film on its own merits, an advance viewing of the original "Nosferatu" adds much more depth to the experience. At times I thought the movie was precociously self-aware and that the dialogue took a far too modern bent in many scenes. I’m sure that this was a deliberate stylistic decision but I found it hard to keep my head firmly in 1922 while John Malkovich was cavorting around in his usual animated style describing Count Orlock as a "dirty, rat bastard." Sometimes it’s a very fine line between dark humor and farce but, taken as a whole, "Shadow of the Vampire" manages to avoid becoming too campy.

Universal’s DVD presentation is without fault. Both the video and audio are faithful reproductions of the theatrical presentation and the inclusion of a fair number of interesting bonus features is most appreciated. Fans of classic horror and dark comedy are sure to enjoy the film and I can’t think of a more entertaining double-feature than F.W. Murnau’s original "Nosferatu" followed by Steven Katz and E. Elias Merhige’s wildly original homage, "Shadow of the Vampire."