F.W. Murnau’s German Expressionist classic, Nosferatu , is arguably the best vampire movie ever made. Capitalizing on the heightened emotions and stark shades of black-and-white, silent film, Nosferatu basically rips off the plot of Dracula, but simplifies it to its basic darkness vs. light plot. Max Schrek, looming with inexorable and silent menace, embodies the Nosferatu character so well that he seems less like an actor playing a role and more like a nightmare given substance.
Shadow of the Vampire takes this idea — what if Schrek really was a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire? — and runs with it into the territory of midnight-black comedy and dazzling insanity.
Malkovich and Dafoe carry this film, both of their intense, stylized performances creating a binary star of obsession. Malkovich tamps down his usual twitchy weirdness in order to play Murnau as a nit-picking control freak who manipulates his actors like puppets. While Malkovich’s Murnau is physically restrained, possessed of a certain inhuman detachment, Dafoe’s “Schrek” is expressive, almost flamboyant in his sneezing, sniffing, cowering, truckling, nail sharpening and other bestial mannerisms. I wouldn’t say that Dafoe hams it up or overdoes it, merely that his “Schrek” fidgets in constant motion, as if he’s made out of swarming bugs, or as if he can barely master his desire to eat something. Both Murnau and “Schrek” complement each other because they both display the same hunger for humanity, the same life-draining impulse, merely manifested in different ways.
Moody, chiaroscuro set design and lighting pays homage to the deep shadows of the original Nosferatu, while creating new layers of creeping dread. A toned-down palette, mostly greys and some heavily saturated greens and browns, and a spare score [mostly in the form of music that would be playing as Nosferatu is filmed] balance out the energetic performances of the stars. Mordant, deadpan humor and a strong absurdist streak make Shadow of the Vampire both amusing and thought-provoking.