E. Elias Merhige | 81 mins | TV | 15 / R
“What if Max Schreck really was a vampire?” is the simple, thoroughly daft, and equally promising, premise of this low-budget horror/drama/comedy.
Having the advantage of such a good concept to kick things off, all starts well, but the longer it runs the more it loses it. Screenwriter Steven A. Katz seems unsure of what Shreck/Orlok actually wants or what the rules governing his existence are, leaving him little more than a threat for the sake of a threat. Still, Willem Dafoe’s performance in the role is brilliant, reveling in the chance to overact — and yet, somehow, subtly overact — as a silent movie vampire. The rest of the cast are fine; in particular, the obsessive and mildly unhinged Murnau seems to suit Malkovich down to the ground. It’s also scary in places, as it should be, because it’s a vampire horror movie that just happens to take the making of another real one as its starting point. Unfortunately, as the plot becomes confusing and ill explained towards the end, so the scares dissipate alongside the viewer’s understanding.
My confusion over the film’s third act may have an external explanation, however. The BBFC list the PAL running time as 88 minutes, but BBC Four’s showing only just hit 81. It certainly felt like there was a chunk missing somewhere in the middle — a slew of characters just disappear and there’s an unexplained leap in the plot — but I can’t think of a reasonable explanation for why or how the BBC would cut seven minutes out of the middle of a film, and the only detailed plot descriptions I can find don’t describe anything I missed.
Nonetheless, even allowing for omissions Katz gives up on any semblance of following the facts toward the end (and throughout, apparently): almost everyone involved is slaughtered, even when they clearly survived in reality, while one character is driven out of his mind, even when he clearly wasn’t… well, presumably. That said, we all know Schreck wasn’t a vampire — his life isn’t nearly mysterious enough to allow for the possibility, should you even believe in such a possibility being possible — so with that leap already taken, why not take as many others as you fancy? Perhaps because it’s not as clever, and not nearly as much fun, as fitting the preposterous tale around the known facts.
Merhige’s direction is occasionally very interesting, such as a couple of grand shots early on, but at other times is perfunctory. To be kind, one might say he goes too far in the aim of replicating silent film style — certainly the intertitles that needlessly replace chunks of the plot are a step beyond. He does manage to create and maintain a weird, unsettling atmosphere, which remains even when all sense disappears.
It’s difficult to accurately assess a film when it appears a good chunk has been lost somewhere in the middle, especially when one suspects some of its major flaws — namely, a lack of coherence at the end — may be due to this omission. On the other hand, I can’t find any evidence that something has been cut, so maybe it just doesn’t make sense? Either way, even on the evidence of what I’ve seen it feels like Shadow of the Vampire takes a good idea, runs well for a while, but winds up uncertain of what to do with it. Though it remains interesting, I won’t be rushing to see any fuller form.