Method Sucking

Willem Dafoe plays a ghoul playing a ghoul in Shadow of the Vampire

Made in 1922, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu has aged better than every other early horror classic. Early sound movies like The Old Dark Horse and the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula have a creaky, economical allure--their goreless chills and softly hackneyed plots have a lovable, flea-market odor to them. Silent horror masterpieces such as Waxworks and Vampyr can seem as out of reach to us now as a scroll of Aramaic letters. But Nosferatu speaks to us still. Subtitled "A Symphony of Terrors" by Murnau, it seems apt for the era of Marilyn Manson and David Fincher. Like them, the movie stares at its own suppurating wounds with the gaping fascination of a child sniffing his own stinky finger. Its hero is the opposite of the dashing, romantic nightbird of a hundred other movies. He's a wonderment of ugliness so remote from us that he barely seems to be a man--a unique specimen of human carrion.

Rodent-eared and bald-headed, with sunken eyes and spindly talons, Max Schreck's Nosferatu is without question the most visually indelible of screen vampires. And since the actor's name is Schreck (a German variant on "dread"), and because he never again appeared in a film that anyone you've ever met is likely to have seen, a mythos grew up around him--the cineaste's version of an urban legend. E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, the first production of Nicolas Cage's Saturn Films, is a riff on that legend. In it, Murnau (John Malkovich) keeps Schreck (Willem Dafoe) far from his cast and crew--he tells them Schreck is a stickler for preparation, and wants to be treated at all times as if he were Nosferatu. Of course, what we deduce is that Murnau has somewhere dug up a real vampire--and the suspense of Shadow of the Vampire lies in whether or not Schreck is, as Murnau believes, an actual bloodsucking freak.

Without giving too much away to the three or four film geeks who will actually sit through the entirety of this movie, Shadow of the Vampire doesn't exactly, shall we say, exploit its situation to its fullest potential. When script girls and day players start dropping dead, one expects comedy to ensue. What director hasn't secretly wished to harbor a personification of his id that could go on a killing spree? And the notion of Schreck as a Method-acting genius avant la lettre--a mastermind who has fooled all of the German film world into thinking he's a bona fide member of the undead--has lip-smacking possibilities.

Say goodnight to the bad guy: Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire
Say goodnight to the bad guy: Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire

Instead of these angles, however, Merhige (a director of Marilyn Manson videos) gives us almost no story whatsoever and distorts Willem Dafoe's performance to the point of acute embarrassment. Coincidentally, during the last week, I happened to watch Dafoe's performances as the pomaded psycho hillbilly Bobby Peru in David Lynch's Wild at Heart and his Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. The unflashy, unself-announcing quality of Dafoe's acting--always starting afresh from a blank canvas--startled me intensely: Here may be the most underrated of great American actors. Dafoe would seem to be a perfect Schreck; as he himself put it, he has the bones for it. But Merhige has directed him into a performance that seems to merge the Wooster Group with The Muppet Show. It's often hard to look at him.

Nicolas Cage must have been drawn to this material because it reminded him of his whacked-out performance in the faux-German Expressionist Vampire's Kiss, where, as a yuppie blood-drinker, he famously ate real cockroaches on camera. Dafoe's performance here is like a parody of Cage's zany brazenness in Vampire's Kiss. Snarling and hissing at Murnau's imprecations, hunching his shoulders in a defensive grimace, Dafoe's Schreck is deliberately cartoonish--an extension of silent-film acting into the midst of a naturalistic world. When this works (e.g., Tommy Lee Jones in Natural Born Killers), it's because the director has built a world that supports the actor's excesses. When it doesn't (e.g., Robert De Niro in We're No Angels), it's because the director hasn't built anything; this is what performers mean by "being hung out to dry."

As F.W. Murnau, John Malkovich gives a quietly impassioned, deeply persuasive performance. If we felt something about what the making of Nosferatu meant to Murnau, there might be a morsel of drama--his need to finish the movie at any cost would have some value other than the extension of Murnau's vanity. And indeed, when Malkovich is given some ill-written hooey to read about cinema as the science of the soul, he sells it for every last penny's worth. But, like William H. Macy's take-it-or-leave-it film director in David Mamet's State and Main, Murnau just seems like a guy who wants to get the job done and then take a long vacation. Has the state of moviemaking become so arid that moviemaker characters are now exclusively conceived as plant foremen? Can't screenwriters imagine any better motivation for their filmmakers than a paycheck?

Shadow of the Vampire grinds its way to an unsurprising, "chilling" conclusion cribbed from Clint Eastwood's movie (and Peter Viertel's novel) White Hunter, Black Heart. At the end of that movie, the filmmaker character--a thinly veiled John Huston--sees his sociopathic vanity and his genius merged; we realize that, both dementedly vainglorious and scarily godlike, he'll do anything to get his shot. The last, croaked syllables of that movie--Huston's "Ac-tion," as he sinks into his chair--still give me chills ten years later. Shadow of the Vampire has an almost identical ending, but it's weightless. The movie's indignation--Some people put movies ahead of everything!--seems whiny, unearned. For a movie that promises cheesy, shivery Hollywood Babylon fun, Shadow of the Vampire is insufferably self-important--like Cecil B. Demented rewritten as tragedy by a committee of high-minded goths.

 

Shadow of the Vampire starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

 
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