One of the flaws of "Gods and Monsters," the 1998 study of "Frankenstein" director James Whale, was the scant heed it paid to Whale's creative process. The film posed a strong argument that Whale's homosexuality fueled his visions of otherness -- then all but forgot to show us those visions coming to life on his sound stages.
In paying tribute to another king of fright -- the great German expressionist director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) -- "Shadow of the Vampire" makes no such mistake. Murnau's work is front and center as he slaves away on Nosferatu, the silent 1922 shocker that was the first great vampire film.
Just don't expect a reliable history lesson. "Shadow" makes a wild suggestion: that Murnau's star, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), was a real-life vampire hired to ensure "Nosferatu's" believability.
As seen here, Murnau hides that fact from his crew, telling them that Schreck is a Stanislavsky-trained thespian whose refusal to work during the day or doff his costume helps him remain in character. But as their location shoot in Eastern Europe progresses, members of the team fall mysteriously ill and disappear from sight. The bony finger of fate ultimately points at Murnau's leading lady, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack). To secure a great performance, has Murnau made a deal with a devil?
The audacity of this loopy premise is undermined by sloppy scripting by Steven Katz. While preparing for her climactic scene with Schreck, Schroeder notes with terror that her co-star casts no reflection in a nearby mirror; yet in the same scene in the original "Nosferatu," said reflection is easy to spot. That raises a larger concern: Why is Murau so confident his undead actor will show up on film in the first place?
At least "Shadow" is wonderful to look at, with director E. Elias Merhige aping silent-movie tableaus and transitions. He invites us to peer through Murnau's viewfinder, where living-color setups morph into the black-and-white images audiences of the era would see on the screen.
Dafoe, whose creepier tendencies date at least to 1985's "To Live and Die in L.A.," sinks his pointed teeth into the role of Schreck, coming up with the best vampiric supporting turn since Martin Landau wore Lugosi's cape in "Ed Wood." Malkovich, however, is shockingly inadequate. After "Being John Malkovich," his haunted mien and whisper-to-a-shout cadences are becoming difficult to take as anything but self-parody. And how to describe his stab at a German accent? At best, "tentative"; at worst, "British."
Its dramatic speed bumps seem shallower when "Shadow" is making fun of the right targets. Schreck's masquerade is the ultimate indictment of the Method, and his relationship with Murnau recalls every political battle ever waged between a temperamental star and a harried director. At one point, the crusty prima donna refuses to sail to an island shoot, demanding to fly instead. Max, meet Demi.
Sadly, Merhige and Katz don't stop there. "You and I are not so different," Schreck tells Murnau, ascertaining a parallel between the two monsters that we hardly need spelled out. Naive, yes, but he can't be expected to know better: Vampires don't get to enroll in community-college film programs. There's less excusing Murnau's mad proclamation, "If it's not in the frame, it doesn't exist" -- a literal advancement of the film's creaky thesis that confusing art with reality can be, well, kinda dangerous. That idea was passé long before "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" got its grubby little hands on it. Like Schreck himself, it appears far from its deserved rest.