Fortunately, almost everybody is doomed in E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, so the overall portrait offers a striking symmetry between man and monster, as well as a demystification of both the traditional vampire paradigm (Christopher Lee hissing menacingly) and the "relatable" contemporary vampire (Tom Cruise flipping his hair). The quirky and cruel screenplay by Steven Katz presents the humanity inherent in vampirism -- and especially vice versa -- while telling a universal tale of insatiable hunger leading to madness leading to death. While such a project could easily decompose into intolerable, mean-spirited junk, Merhige and Katz focus as much on the jocular as the jugular, and they're attended by a superb cast who sustain a perfect pitch.
The year is 1921, and we open with a re-creation of Berlin's JOFA studios, where the director F.W. Murnau (a delirious John Malkovich) snaps at his producer Albin Grau (a splendidly uppity Udo Kier) and leading lady Greta Schroeder (a spunky Catherine McCormack). "A theatrical audience gives me life, while this thing takes it from me!" presciently declares Greta, glaring at Murnau's hand-cranked camera, less a machine than a mad fetish for the obsessive artist. Clearly a self-inflated and kinky loon, Murnau is driven by hunger, which translates into a desire to create the most realistic movie ever filmed.
Woe to his cast and crew, however, as a steam train called Charon transports them to the lush, haunted valleys of Czechoslovakia, where Murnau intends to create his monster movie. Bram Stoker's widow has refused him the rights to her late husband's novel, so he has simply renamed the project Nosferatu, featuring a vampire named Count Orlock. In Merhige's film, however, this is where historical re-creation ends and wild fiction begins, as Katz has taken a crucial liberty with the little-known actor who portrayed the tall, bald, ratlike vampire in the real Murnau's real Nosferatu, 80 years ago. In order to deceive his team and achieve his dream, Murnau has latched onto Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe, devilishly amusing), a genuinely undead bloodsucker whom he's trying to pass off as a Stanislavsky graduate.
This is the one trick that sustains the remainder of the movie, but it's a good one, since the gruesome Schreck's "method acting" requires the crew to shoot his scenes exclusively at night. Slowly, Murnau's small army of craftsmen and actors come to learn the truth of their pallid, persnickety star, whose appetite leads him much more to flesh than fame. As the first camera man (Ronan Vibert) and the hilariously devalued screenwriter (John Aden Gillet) meet with the horrors of Schreck, Murnau simply becomes more obsessive, barking commands at his alternately jovial and terrified leading man, Gustav von Wangerheim (Eddie Izzard) and roguish replacement cameraman (Cary Elwes) to complete Nosferatu at any cost. Most disturbing of all, as a sort of completion agreement with his unpredictable villain, the nearly certifiable Murnau has promised Schreck a delectable morsel at the wrap party.
Without question, Shadow of the Vampire is a stately and elegant horror film, interwoven with delicious strands of black comedy. Apart from the unpleasantness inherent in the story's very essence, the movie's main problem may be that the material will be too obvious for more reverent students of the genre. It's not scary or suspenseful per se, and it's much more dank and claustrophobic than the original Nosferatu or, for that matter, the powerful and haunting remake by Werner Herzog from 1979. While Murnau gave us the darkest of fantasies, and Herzog somehow managed to make a plague of rats seem beautiful, Merhige's magic is smaller, more intimate, built upon spooky dissolves and Dafoe's remarkable makeup, which does half the actor's work for him.
Ultimately, Shadow of the Vampire boils down to a battle between two vampires -- Murnau and Schreck; it is a film that addresses the future of cinema as much as it is a document in thrall to the past. Throughout the movie, it's impossible to forget that motion pictures are about capturing souls. More disturbing, one must consider who is doing the capturing and what force -- masculine, feminine, other -- drives them to such an endeavor. Turn away, and you'll glimpse two madmen dissolving into caricature. Look closely, however, and you'll behold the dark heart of cinema made manifest.