Shadow Of The Vampire (2000)

Directed by E. Elias Merhige

Produced by Nicolas Cage, Norman Golightly & Jeff Levine

Starring John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Aden Gillet, Ronan Vibert

Shadow Of The Vampire

Suppose, for just one moment, that acclaimed German filmmaker F.W. Murnau did not in fact have a leading man by the name of Max Schreck in his most famous film. The illustrious Mr. Shreck was in fact the real Count Orlock, and Murnau's "Faustian" pact with the undead monster would guarantee his place in the cinema history books. Therein lays the premise of Elias Merhige's second, Academy Award nominated feature. Although Merhige adamantly rebukes the inference that he has constructed a rather revisionist vampire film, he has indeed crafted simply that. Albeit laced with such a strong wave of nostalgia, that the film has become a metaphor for cinema itself. Addressed at a somewhat simpler level, the film is little more than what it outwardly appears to be.

Cast your mind back to 1921, when F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) was in the throes of creating the event in cinema that would go on to become the landmark of his art. With leading man Gustav Von Wangenheim (Izzard), producer Albin Grau (Kier) and prima-donna diva Greta Schroeder (McCormack) in tow, he traipses off to a remote area of Czechoslovakia to film his epic tale of vampirism, filched from the estate of Bram Stoker (subtly remodeled to avoid copyright infringement). But what of his real leading man? Murnau assures all that once "in-country" they will meet their co-star, one Max Schreck (Dafoe), but warns that he is a method actor who takes his art extremely seriously. Cast members must refer to him by his screen name of "Count Orlock", they may only shoot his scenes at night, and they must allow their co-star to remain "in character" when off set. A truly creepy set of rules, right? Well, maybe there's more to Mr. Schreck than initially meets the eye. And indeed, there truly is�for it's not long before Murnau's co-workers discover that they may just be acting alongside a real vampire. However, they are blissfully unaware of the pact Murnau and Schreck have made between themselves, one with frightening consequences for all.

Is it horror, or is it art? Well my friends, I can assure you that, surreal supposition and cinematic meanderings aside, it is a marvelously well-written horror film, the likes of which we have not seen for a number of years. Its central theme of the power of cinema puts it on track with features of the calibre of Giuseppe Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso" (my favourite movie, incidentally), but it is its vampiric back plot that places it firmly on genre ground. Malkovich's Murnau is the TRUE monster of the piece, fervently giving his all to achieve his art, working towards a level of realism that the kinescope has never experienced. Dafoe's Orlock is a wondrous creature, a character that explores the real range and depth that Dafoe is capable of. Even under a mountain of latex, Dafoe shines, imbuing his role with a darker, more tortured humanity than all who surround him. I may get cries of "sacrilege" for saying so, but Malkovich is not one of my favourite actors, I only ever was taken with his performances in Gary Sinise's "Of Mice And Men" (1992) and Stephen Frear's "Dangerous Liasons" (1988). Here he plays Murnau unusually broad, manic and obsessive one moment, desperate morphine addict the next (the real Murnau was not an addict, by the way). Obviously this was screenwriter Steven Katz's intention, as Murnau comes across an intensely obsessive soul, determined to achieve "his art" at any cost. Yes, the performance is mesmerising, but overshadowed by Dafoe's Orlock.

Supporting cast are amazing, from Elwes' crazed bohemian cinematographer Franz Arno Wagner (played as WAY ahead of his time) right down to everyone's (closet) favourite Count Udo Kier as cost-conscious producer Grau. McCormack's rendition of Schroeder is so wonderfully irritating that you can't wait for Orlock to put the bite on her. Dan Jones' score has been labeled bombastic in some quarters, but it is lush, sweeping and lyrical, evocatively lending immense weight to the visuals. The real stars are director E. Elias Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz, who create a witty, moving, and (also) epic feel on a low budget. You don't see the word "original" there, do you? If the central premise seems "fresh and original" to you, take a second look at Gerard Cicoritti's low budget Canadian vampire opus "Graveyard Shift 2: The Understudy" if your memory needs jogging...:)

The AV Channel & Madman Entertainment's R4 disc appears to quite closely mirror the feature content of Momentum's UK R2 disc, right down to the Anamorphic (16:9) 1.85 framing. Many may decry this as some sort of perverse sacrilege, given that "Vampire" was exhibited theatrically in an aspect ratio of Anamorphic 2.35, however all is not what it first appears. Merhige shot the film in the Panavision Super 35 process (a format that affects a 1.33 frame that can be matted to provide a 2.35 image), thus what we have herein is not actually a cropping of the 2.35 image, rather a reframing (and opening out) of the theatrical matte. Hence, although not quite true to the exhibited version, there is actually more image present at the head and foot of the image than previously visible, albeit without any loss of picture (apart from minor cropping of the title cards that infrequently appear throughout the film) across the width of the image. Initially, one would assume that the image is presented in the "wrong" aspect ratio, but this is actually a patent untruth. It is simply a reframing direct from the Super 35 image. Purists may prefer to run with Universal's Region 1 disc, that has preserved the cinema framing, but be advised that both the Region 2 & 4 versions actually contain MORE visual information, rather than less.

Additionally, the image is initially a rather curious animal. From first impressions, the image would appear to exhibit an ugly amount of grain, as well as on off-kilter colour palette. Not so much issues with the transfer as one would suspect, the reasoning behind such an unusual DVD presentation can be cast firmly at the feet of director Merhige and cinematographer Lou Bogue. Many would consider "Vampire's" DVD image a "disgrace", however the heavy brown & green colour ambience, and prevalent grain, are facets the filmmakers infused their production with to distinguish its look, making the final product visually unique. Viewers need only compare flesh-tones, black levels, and the general distinctiveness of the overall feature to ascertain that the colour hues and image grain are "deliberate". Imagine my complete surprise when a good friend (and "Nosferatu" buff excelsius) commented "Hey, they kept all of the film-grain and those weird colours!" at a recent viewing of this disc. Proof enough, I think! Otherwise, primary aspects of the feature service the film extremely well, with much of the film being bright and colourful, with strong levels of detail, as well as a surprisingly strong Dolby 5.1 track (though never gimmicky, it creates an effective atmosphere, as well as startles with the odd directional effect). There is mention on the packaging of a Dolby 2.0 track, but this refers to the Commentary track.

Additionally, Madman have put together a massive array of Extra features, nicely set to themed menus that manage to capture a nostalgia befitting of the film (very art deco!). Stepping through, there's an audio commentary by Merhige (very measured, and heavily targeting the metaphoric as well as technical aspects of the film, inclusive of said film technique), Cast & Crew Interviews, the theatrical trailer, Production notes, On set B-roll footage, Make-up application montage, Photo gallery montage, Murnau & Nosferatu text notes, and a copious Madman trailer gallery. Whew! Could you fit much else on a disc? Hmmm, possibly not if you tried, although the attractions trailers were very tasty (nice to see "Mullet", the controversial "Amore Perros", "Ring 2" and "The Monkey's Mask" up for R4 release! Before Madman/Siren/AV's appearance, these titles would have been a pipe dream in Australia�).

In hindsight, Merhige's film is a clever, feverish take on the world's most famous horror film, one that plays with the notions of fantasy, addiction and obsession themselves. But one that also is a homage to that most wondrous of artforms, cinema itself; befitted by mesmerising performances by Dafoe, Malkovich, and (dare I say it) Warhol's Dracula par-excellence, Udo Kier. It is a captivating, and unique genre-slanted production, presented herein in a version that has been relatively bold enough to dare to replicate the cinema presentation complete with all of its eccentric stylings intact. Although this may infuriate many DVD viewers used to major studios clinical DVD presentations, it is fairly true to its source materials, albeit framed marginally wider than expected. If framing is a major issue to you, then Universal's R1 disc is available with the 2.35 formatting intact (and a rather curious DTS track) from any number of US online retailers. Personally, I feel that Madman & The AV Channel should be applauded for making this film available to Region 4 viewers in such a faithful rendition.

*My apologies to Madman & the producers of this disc on the matter of the original review of this title. Information therein was erroneous in the extreme, and based upon some lacklustre research on my behalf. This revised review represents a more measured, and better informed, view of the Region 4 disc. Sincerest apologies for any inconvenience, or unwarranted discredit, this may have caused you.

Review by M.C.Thomason

Released by The AV Channel & Madman Entertainment
Classified M (15+) - Region 4
Running time - 91m
Ratio - Widescreen 1.78 (16x9)
Audio - Dolby digital 5.1
Extras :
Director's Audio Commentary; Featurette; Cast & Crew Interviews; Production featurettes; Trailer; Attraction trailers