Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: R for intensity, violence
Run Time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
I’ve always known that Willem Dafoe would make the ideal vampire. Something about those naturally pointed teeth. Physical typecasting aside, Dafoe is marvelously absorbing in this barbed ode to legendary director F.W. Murnau, and the perils of 1920s filmmaking.
It’s a well known fact that Murnau was thoroughly devoted to his art. His attention to detail, and neurotic passion for authenticity, is legendary. Nowhere is this more evident than in his classic vampire film, 1922’s “Nosferatu”, starring the mysterious Max Schreck as the preternaturally creepy bloodsucker.
Cut to our contemporary homage. Intent on creating his latest silent masterpiece, Murnau (John Malkovich) has assembled Germany’s greatest talents. All the key roles are assigned, except that of Count Orlock, the pivotal character of Murnau’s eerie vision. Insisting that his Orlock be wholly macabre, Murnau settles on eccentric oddball Schreck (Dafoe). Schreck is the consummate professional – so professional, in fact, that he insists on remaining permanently in character, refuses to shoot in daylight, and exhibits an unhealthy fascination with his cast mates’ necks.
The filming of “Nosferatu” dissolves into a symphony of horrors. The leading lady is suffering from an unmentionable substance abuse problem, and the other actors are visibly uncomfortable with Schreck, Unable to complete his masterwork, Murnau turns moody and belligerent. The situation turns traumatic when the cinematographer turns up dead, forcing Murnau to depart for Berlin to recruit a replacement. The cast is left alone with their ghoulish Nosferatu, who, by the way, seems a trifle parched.
Director E. Elias Merhige has hit on the perfect balance between black comedy and palpable fright. Plenty of material to amuse, with a persistent feeling of dread underlying the laughs. The humor is based on the unpleasant act of making a movie with uncooperative actors, temperamental equipment, and a vast array of insecure personalities to appease and coddle. Not to mention the freakish Dracula-wannabe with a thirst for stardom. The leads work off of each other effortlessly – Malkovich as the relentlessly tortured genius, Dafoe (is he or isn’t he?) as the actor playing a vampire playing an actor, and Udo Kier as the harried producer cum voice of reason. Sets are convincing, atmospheric reproductions of the original - dark, gloomy and depressing. A sinister delight for the black at heart.