Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Underrated, Underappreciated Movies, Day 6: Shadow of the Vampire

Today's selection:

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow of the Vampire is director E. Elias Merhige's first major Hollywood project, previously most known for his bizarre cult flick Begotten. Shadow is the tale of German director F.W. Murnau's attempts to film Nosferatu by making a pact with an actual vampire. It first received a 6-theater release on December 29, 2000, and widened to its peak of 513 theaters by January 26, 2001. The film brought in around 11 million dollars overall.

What Turned Them Away?

- No particular genre or marketing hook. As we've seen with movies like Bug and Fearless, movies that do not adhere to one particular genre ("drama" doesn't really count) tend to not perform nearly as well as things like "horror" or "comedy". The closest Shadow of the Vampire comes to a genre is horror, which seems to be the studios' go-to genre for darker movies of no real predisposition. This isn't a scary movie, unless you count the ethereal chill that the atmosphere of the movie gives. It's enthralling, hypnotic and darkly humorous, but not really scary at all.

- People simply don't seem to talk about it. To be fair, this is not really the kind of movie that inspires fervent praise. It is dark, mellow and unconventional; there's no quotable dialogue, no grandstanding machismo...it just exists. This is the kind of movie that sat in the back of the fourth grade classroom and cut centipedes in half with scissors, and then when it got to college it suddenly became really awesome and sexy but still a little creepy. I think people are kind of alienated by that weirdness, enough to skip over the beauty of the imagery or the many other things that it offers. The structure is very free-form, there's little outstanding scriptwork to think about, and a lot of the plot is left up to the viewer's imagination - it's an oddly European movie, and I wonder if people were threatened by that. Either that, or it's simply been forgotten by time, as some great works tend to be.

What Should Have Kept Them?

+ Atmosphere. This movie, in terms of composition, is unlike few others. As dumb as this will surely seem, it's like a silent movie with sound - the image is placed at the forefront and what the characters are saying is secondary. Some of the best scenes of the movie come when Murnau is filming his movie and what we are seeing is shown in grainy black-and-white film, interwoven with the "real" scenes in color. I think it's a reminder of some of the things that we take for granted about black and white film...The stimuli are different, sure, but the starkness of the image can make what you're seeing all the more visceral. The first time this technique is used, Murnau is filming the vampire's first appearance, and it is downright chilling to watch him emerge from the shadows.

The movie is very Gothic, not in the meaning of the term that most of us know, but in that it's evocative of crumbling European castles and creatures lurking in the shadows. It successfully captures two tones: that of the original Nosferatu, and something completely new, bleak and haunted and totally beautiful. It seems shallow to praise a movie so heavily for its aesthetic, but Shadow of the Vampire is truly remarkable work.

+ Willem Dafoe. This is the role that really brought Dafoe to the forefront for me. To be honest, I never paid any attention to him in anything else he's been in, even though people claim he's a real acting chameleon and stuff like that. His work in Shadow of the Vampire as Max Schreck, however, is too good to be ignored. It is a truly incredible immersion of an actor into his role, standing well among the work of DDL's much loved Daniel Plainview or any other transformative performance in recent years. Frankly, for him to have lost the Supporting Actor Oscar to Benicio Del Toro's work in Traffic is a travesty; Benny is good, but it was a boring role and he's done far better work in a lot of other movies. Dafoe is unforgettable. He is the only actor to have nailed his accent, for one. Regrettably, a lot of the other accents are God-awful; between this and Mary Reilly, John Malkovich seems unable to do much with his voice.

Dafoe must have watched Nosferatu a hundred times to prepare for this role. He moves like a vampire, looks like a vampire (thanks in part to the awesome makeup), talks like a vampire (a great feat considering Nosferatu didn't have any sound) and acts like a vampire, in more meanings of the term than one. There are so many dimensions to this role: black humor, longing, primal fear, vengeance, theatrics... the character is compelling enough as it is, and Dafoe nails every single one of these aspects effortlessly. You simply forget that it is a person playing this creature.

I think this movie is an acquired taste, and no matter how much I praise it, there are going to be people who it doesn't quite gel with. I don't really have a problem with that; it just depends on what you're watching a movie to see. But if you're looking for something of dark, fundamental beauty, Shadow of the Vampire is tough to beat. And for those concerned, it is only 86 minutes long, so you really don't have much to lose.

(I'm pretty sure that screenshot is actually from Nosferatu, but whatever.)

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