14 October 2001 | dover
Great concept, well executed
First off, this is a much better movie if you have seen Murnau's expressionist masterpiece, "Nosferatu". There are a number of scenes from this movie that draw on "Nosferatu", and it makes a lot of the scenes more enjoyable. The movie is done in very much an expressionist vein it itself, the kind of film F.W. Murnau would certainly have appreciated.
The concept here is incredibly intriguing - what if a horror movie was a horror to film? Once the film kicks into gear, it establishes a rather creepy mood, especially in the sets, most of which mirror those of "Nosferatu" (the writer's bed, for instance, looks exactly like Hutter's).
As the film progresses, the actors take over the film, and it's interesting to see how they stack up to their precursors from 70 years ago. Eddie Izzard is an interesting Hutter (the Jonathan Harker analog), as (pretend) silent acting is well-tailored to his overbearing antics. Udo Kier is quite good as reserved producer Albin Grau. Alas, Cary Elwes, one of Hollywood's most underappreciated actors, is typecast as a kind of roguish, free-spirited Fritz Wagner, a real cinematographer (and the main one throughout all of "Nosferatu") and one of the stalwarts of German cinema into the 50's.
Malkovich is ideal for this role. He does a good job of being a manic, desparate for everything on his film to go right. His Murnau is a control-freak, a guy who keeps his crew in the dark, and adds to the generally creepiness.
The most curious thing about Murnau's "Nosferatu" is the vampire himself. The rest of the characters are pretty direct analogs of "Dracula". But instead of a suave, cool vampire of the Christopher Lee/Gary Oldman mold (later roles, of course), Murnau's vampire was a stiff, cold, violent monster. Willem Dafoe is absolutely brilliant in portraying this. He has some moments of comedic relief, bickering harmlessly with Malkovich, and generally being a fish out of water. Soon, however, his character becomes undeniably creepy, and Dafoe does a great job of making Count Orlok seem like the kind of guy who makes your skin crawl. In some way, this Orlok is less of a monster - he's portrayed a bit more sympathetically, sorrowing in his loneliness and never getting to see light. Murnau's vampire was almost always shot from below, making him appear huge and menacing; Dafoe's Orlok isn't monstrous so much as he just makes your skin crawl.
I do have a couple beefs, though, mainly technical. On a purely nitpicky level, Murnau is mentioned as a comtemporary of Griffith and Eisenstein, despite the fact that Eisenstein didn't make a movie until two years after "Nosferatu". On a less petty level, the characters seem a bit dumb. They have no problem accepting the fact that Orlok is an actual vampire once Malkovich tells them, but can't seem to figure it out on their own, despite seeing, among other things, Orlok pulling a bat out of the air and sucking the blood out of it.
The film, in general, does not end well. The penultimate scene is horribly contrived, a lot of silly reminiscing to to advance the plot a little. The ending itself isn't necessarily bad, just a bit ambigous. You don't come away with a clear sense of who (if anyone) was wronged amongst the main characters, and we leave a couple of them in limbo. A couple of technical details are odd, too. Murnau's Nosferatu has a shadow and a reflection, but this one only a shadow. Also, in the final scene they are supposedly filming, there's a wooden stake that's nowhere to be found in "Nosferatu".
A quick note, by the way - while the movie they are filming actually exists, rest assured the story is pure fantasy. Max Schreck went on to make more movies, as did the rest of the actors in this film, and no actors were bitten during the filming of the original movie.
A thououghly enjoyable film, especially if you're familiar with the subject matter.