Shadow of the Vampire
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Cast: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack
(Lions Gate Films, 2000) Rated: R
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Just in time for your holiday enjoyment (or just after: depending on where you live, Shadow of the Vampire may open in late January) are two new versions of the oft-filmed Bram Stoker classic Dracula. Frankly, it doesn’t seem coincidental that these films are being released around the holidays; certainly Dracula’s bloodsucking lust appeals on some level to our own holiday consumer frenzies. Further, the two films appeal to our brand consciousness by offering a product dreadfully familiar yet just different enough to constitute something “new.”
While both films are based loosely on the original story, one is the retelling of a retelling of the tale, and the other a rather straightforward “reinterpretation” of the tale with a new twist added. Of course, this is the challenge faced by any director bold enough to try to re-present Dracula; at this point the story has been told so many times over that finding a new angle is daunting indeed, if not outright impossible. Admirably, both E. Elias Merhige and Patrick Lussier find something new to say about the Count, even if both stories fall apart in the end.
I must admit to a bit of trepidation as I went to see Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000. There were no advance screenings of the film, which usually signals a film that has tested so poorly that the studio hopes to have at least one big-bang opening weekend before the press destroys any hope of its success. To my surprise Dracula 2000, wasn’t all that bad and I actually found myself largely enjoying it. Although Wes Craven’s name is prominently featured in the film’s title, he only executive produced the film. Longtime Craven editor Patrick Lussier (he edited the Scream trilogy as well as Craven’s acclaimed A New Nightmare) takes the director’s chair here, and his film lacks none of the hipness and slick storytelling that have characterized Craven’s work. Co-written by Lussier with Joel Soisson, Dracula 2000 updates Stoker’s story and sets it in contemporary London and New Orleans. In a quick montage that seems directly influenced by Marilyn Manson videos (several of which, somewhat ironically, were directed by Shadow of the Vampire director Merhige), the film establishes the Count’s original voyage to England aboard the Demeter in pursuit of Mina Harker. In one of the film’s many inconsistencies, we are supposed to forget that in the original story, after seducing Mina, Dracula returns to Transylvania, where Doctor Van Helsing hunts him down. Here, Dracula never leaves England, where he is caught by Van Helsing. Jump to the year 2000 and the interior of Carfax Antiquities (remember, Carfax Abbey was the property Dracula bought as a residence through Jonathan Harker), where Van Helsing’s grandson Abraham (Christopher Plummer) now manages the family’s lucrative trade in rare antiques with the help of his young assistant Simon (Jonny Lee Miller).
So we have the “2000” part; now we just need Dracula (played by Gerard Butler, a relatively unknown actor who falls rather short of the seductiveness necessary for a portrayal of the Count, in my book). One of Van Helsing’s employees, Solina (the fabulously sexy Jennifer Esposito) and her boyfriend Marcus (Omar Epps) decide to loot Van Helsing’s super-high-security underground vault, which, they believe, must hold an impressive array of riches. Solina and Marcus, along with his gang of young thugs, mastermind a high-tech heist only to find the vault largely empty, except for cobwebs, human skeletons, and one very large, very tightly sealed silver coffin. Figuring that whatever’s inside must be priceless, the group steals the coffin and takes a private jet to the Cayman Islands. Of course, we all know that Dracula is inside, and the tight enclosure of the jet is the perfect space for the vampire to pick off the crew, regain his strength (as well as create a little army of baby vamp acolytes), and head for New Orleans.
New Orleans is also directly where Van Helsing heads after finding that the coffin has been pilfered, as this is where is daughter Mary (Justine Waddell) lives, whom, Van Helsing surmises, Dracula must be after in revenge for hundreds of years of imprisonment by the Van Helsing family. Thanks largely to Anne Rice, New Orleans would be the contemporary site for a vampire battle royale, and New Orleans during Mardi Gras presents the chaotic backdrop appropriate for Dracula’s bloody business—in the excesses of this Christian pre-Lenten orgy, Dracula’s own activities appear pretty tame indeed. What follows is a rather predictable vampire stalker story in which Drac assembles his trio of bloodthirsty seductresses—Solina, a TV reporter named Valerie (Jeri Ryan), and Mary’s roommate Lucy (Colleen “Vitamin C” Fitzpatrick)—and hunts down Mary while pursued at every turn by Van Helsing and Simon.
So what’s different about Dracula 2000? Well, two things. First, and not very originally, it rips off the recent Blade as well as the WB’s Angel, in which the vampire hunter is part vampire himself. I won’t spoil the story by telling you how or why Van Helsing comes to be part vampire, but in his status as such, blood relations and the relation between hunter and hunted (on a number of levels) get muddied. In this, Dracula 2000 complicates the traditional, hierarchic cultural work of monsters, in which the monster marks the border between Self and Other, the “normal” and “pathological,” and morally “appropriate” and “inappropriate” behaviors (usually linked to sexuality, and in vampire stories, to women’s and gay male sexuality). Here Van Helsing is both monster and savior.
The second breath of fresh air Lussier and Soisson try to give the story is a re-imagining of the genesis of Dracula. As opposed to Stoker’s novel, in which the Count’s undying love spans centuries of undead living, in Dracula 2000, the Count’s story is much older and caught up in that of the Wandering Jew of orthodox Christian mythology. An interesting proposition, but really, this re-telling of Dracula’s narrative gets more than a bit preachy in its critique of Catholic inconsistencies, and only comes at the end, unnecessarily complicating the relatively simple story of the Count’s revenge upon Van Helsing, accomplished of course through the body of Mary. But, as I said earlier, at this point, any new Dracula film must have a fresh take on a decidedly unfresh film corpus.
E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire largely makes good on this imperative to freshness, even though its ending is far more disappointing than Dracula 2000‘s. The production of F. W. Murnau’s 1921 classic of German expressionist cinema, Nosferatu, is the setting for Merhige’s new vampire tale. It seems that during the filming, the character actor Max Schreck (here played by Willem Dafoe) took his immersion theory of acting to such an extreme that he literally scared the bejesus out of much of the cast and crew. What if, screenwriter Steven Katz wonders, Schreck weren’t merely an incredibly dedicated actor but actually a vampire hired by Murnau? Or was he? This is the tension/question that preoccupies most of the film, and it is in its vacillating between the poles, “Schreck as vampire—Schreck as actor,” that the film is most intriguing. We watch actor Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard, whose facial expressions as a silent era movie actor are a joy to watch), who plays the Jonathan Harker character in Nosferatu, negotiate his increasing confusions about Schreck. Clearly he is both disgusted by and afraid of Schreck and at the same time reluctantly admires his acting ability and appreciates the performance Schreck elicits from himself. During a break in filming, while Murnau is back in Berlin finding a new cameraman after the first succumbs to a strange, enervating illness, Schreck prowls the location at night. He runs across the producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier, who is perfect for this role) and the writer Henrick Galeen (John Gillet). Drunk on schnapps, they encourage the “actor” to “take [his] funny ears off.” They continue to question Schreck about being a vampire, trying to break his Method. At one point during the conversation, Schreck snatches a bat from the air and goes Ozzy on its ass, ripping its head off and sucking out its blood. After Schreck leaves the scene, Albin remarks admiringly, “What an actor!”
To further confuse the question of whether Schreck is a vampire or a very talented performer, Katz represents director F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) as rather monomaniacal in his attempt to capture “authentic horror” on film. Accordingly, the mystery Murnau constructs around Schreck (who will only film on location and only at night, in the very creepy Czech countryside) appears to value “authenticity” over his cast and crew’s health, not to mention their sanity. Murnau’s unwillingness to compromise a single frame makes him seem a bit insane himself; his increasingly frenetic and possibly schizophrenic behavior situates him on the thin line between madman and genius, and hints that he is “degenerate” as well (think: Sade, Rimbaud, Genet).
Early on, Shadow of the Vampire sets up Murnau’s apparent immorality when he visits a decadent German cabaret, filled with the requisite cross-dressers, lesbians, and gay men, all filmed through a sort of druggy optic effect. Indeed, drugs and unethical behavior come to characterize Murnau. By the end of filming Nosferatu, after he has encouraged Schreck’s vampiric antics at great cost to everyone involved, he appears collapsed in bed with a syringe of laudanum sticking from his arm. This is the end to which Murnau’s singular vision had driven him, to the edge of lethal overdose. Yet this is also where Murnau finds the finale for his film; Murnau’s own “death” is replicated in the final scene of Nosferatu in which the actress Greta Schroeder as Mary (played by Catherine McCormack) makes the ultimate sacrifice to Count Orlock, just as Murnau has sacrificed so much for his film.
In the end, however, Shadow of the Vampire, for all its provocative questions about the relation of fact to fiction, of the production of “authentic” art and ethical behavior, writes itself into a corner, and can only produce the lamest answer to the question of whether Max Schreck is a vampire or not. Additionally, the film itself forgets some of the conventions of its own genre and subject matter. If Max Schreck is a vampire, how can the filming of Nosferatu progress, as vampires cannot appear on celluloid? Granted, if Schreck isn’t a vampire, we don’t have a problem, but the film doesn’t even consider the question. This is a simple Vampire Rule that Shadow of the Vampire forgets, unlike Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000, which (like the Scream trilogy) follows all the rules it lays out and still manages to escape being merely repetitive or derivative. Say what you will about Wes (and Patrick Lussier, now coming out from under Craven’s tutelage), he consistently shows respect for the intelligence of his audience, which is something that, for all its promise, and all the ways Merhige’s is a “better” movie (narratively, stylistically, and in its performances), Shadow of the Vampire conveniently forgets, or just plain ignores.