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by: James Berardinelli

Nosferatu. For movie-lovers, that one-word title conjures a whirlwind of indelible images forever imprinted in the mind's eye, with none more stark than the harrowing sight of the gaunt, horrific Count Orlock. The crowning cinematic jewel in the crown of German silent film director F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu has been hailed by countless critics as one of the most influential films of all time, and nearly every subsequent horror film owes at least a small debt to this picture. Through the ages, directors have regarded Nosferatu with nothing short of reverence (Werner Herzog's somber, faithful remake is a masterpiece in its own right) - until now.

At the conclusion of every showing of Shadow of the Vampire, movie-goers are going to flock to their local video store to rent a copy of Nosferatu. If this new film becomes a success, there won't be a Blockbuster around with a copy left on the shelves. That's because E. Elias Merhige's sophomore feature offers a compelling, fictionalized account of the filming of the seminal 1922 film. As Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz have imagined things, the pointy-eared, bald star of Nosferatu, Max Schreck, didn't just play a vampire - he was one in real life.

This is not the first recent film to look behind the lens into the lives of the men and women involved in a horror classic. 1998's Gods and Monsters used occasional historical facts and wove them into a compelling, albeit largely fictional, narrative about the last days of director James Whale, the man behind the screen's best-known Frankenstein and his bride. For Shadow of the Vampire, Merhige takes things to greater extremes and employs more humor than Bill Condon, but the underlying idea is similar.

John Malkovich gets top billing, being Murnau. However, the standout is an unrecognizable Willem Dafoe, whose eerie turn as the bloodthirsty Schreck should earn him an Oscar nomination (if there's any justice - which, as we all know, there isn't when it comes to the Academy Awards - and if enough people see the film). Dafoe is the spitting image of Schreck, from the unmistakable look (no one, not even Bela Lugosi, has created a more memorable vampire screen persona) to the mannerisms. Watching Dafoe is an eerie experience, especially for those who are familiar with Nosferatu (and, to a lesser extent, with Klaus Kinski's version of the vampire in Herzog's 1979 edition).

The simple story follows the movie's production history, which runs into trouble early when Bram Stoker's widow refuses Murnau the rights to "Dracula" and certain substitutions have to be made (for example, the lead character is no longer called Dracula; he has become Orlock). The director also is forced to deal with a temperamental leading lady (played by Catherine McCormack). Then there's the casting of the mysterious Schreck as Count Orlock. Murnau introduces the reclusive performer to his co-workers as the ultimate method actor, and they all marvel at his dedication (staying in character all the time). Soon after, various cast and crew members inexplicably begin to fall ill. Murnau knows Schreck's nasty little secret - the two have made a pact - but his conscience is clear (although he warns Schreck to contain his appetite until the last scene has been committed to celluloid). He is willing to do almost anything in the name of making a great movie.

And that's exactly what Merhige has accomplished with Shadow of the Vampire. In addition to having a wonderful conceit as the basis of the plot and featuring two superlative lead performances, the film pays homage to its inspiration, carefully re-creating many of the most memorable scenes from the German vampire film. (Although I'm pretty sure Nosferatu did not show the Count squeezing Ellen's breasts as he fed.) Movie buffs have always accorded Nosferatu a special place in film history, and Merhig


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