New blood 

Shadow of the Vampire offers a fresh take on Dracula lore

As we saunter Oscar-ward, I have a modest proposal for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It should create a new category recognizing the Best Performance by an Actor as a Vampire. Seriously. Vampires are so prominent a part of our popular culture as to constitute a veritable industry unto themselves. Heck, judging by the "Buffy" franchise alone, the Left Coast is so lousy with vampires, one couldn't get a paper-cut in L.A. without being in very serious danger of getting sucked dry.

Better yet, why not give vampire movies their own awards show? Everybody else has one, and this would be the perfect time to launch the "Vampies." It's been a good year for vampire media and Shadow of the Vampire is a stake-in for Best Picture, and Willem Dafoe could take Best Actor at a skulk. The very first Lifetime Achievement Award (or Afterlifetime Achievement Award, to bleed a dead horse), of course, would go the Max Schreck.

Ah, Max Schreck! His very name means terror. Actually, his name translates as "scream," but why pick nits? Either way it makes for a damn impressive introduction at the schnitzel stand.

Schreck may not be as well-known a human mosquito as Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, but he has seniority over both. He played the silver screen's first feature vampire in Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau's extraordinary 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and even though he didn't set the standard for vampire acting, he helped spark a popular fascination with cinematic Creatures of the Night that moviegoers have never quite managed to shake.

Despite the copyright wrangles that forced the German producers to change all the names, the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker's windy Gothic tale, already a stage hit in England, was an international sensation. Crowds from Tulsa to Tokyo shuddered with delight at the film's dense atmosphere of pervasive dread and the vampire's otherworldly appearance. Murnau's masterful manipulation of mood and shadow aside, Max was enough to put most folks off their feed, all by himself. With his corpse-gaunt frame, beady eyes and vulture nose, he seemed to have been born to play the part. An impression only heightened by the fact that he never played another. Murnau made his bones and eventually went to Hollywood. Schreck went to a mental hospital, never to be seen on film again.

Or so the legend goes.

In truth, Schreck returned to work after his "rest," working extensively on stage and screen in Germany. He never crossed the Pond, though his failure to capture an American audience might simply have been a matter of looks. Critical assessments vary as to exactly how ugly Scheck was. Some scholars have compared him to a cross between Johnny Rotten and The Simpsons' Montgomery Burns, while others insist on a blend incorporating Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and a naked mole rat.

Dafoe, who plays mysterious Max in Shadow of the Vampire, which was spawned by the Nosferatu legend, is in the latter camp. His is a Schreck only a mole rat could love.

Screenwriter Steven Katz and director E. Elias Merhige, who makes his first mainstream outing with this fictionalized account of the making of Murnau's classic, has the famed director (John Malkovich, again being pretty much John Malkovich) casting the snarling Schreck as the lead of Nosferatu. Murnau's fanatical dedication to finishing the film compels him to tolerate his star's eccentricities, which include working nights, loitering in coffins, and even demanding posession of licentious leading lady Greta (Elizabeth McCormick) in lieu of residuals and a cut of the merchandising.

It's the sort of conceit -- a vampire movie with a real vampire -- that could easily fall flat or pratfall into parody, but Merhige's merry band manages, miraculously, to pull it off.

Shadow evokes the mood and style of silent cinema without the slightest hint of contempt and sends up Murnau's masterpiece without ever looking down on it. Though there are some charming moments of primordial cinematic practice (Eddie Izzard is quite charming as an actor in Nosferatu, who translates into pantomime the fear he actually feels at the sight of his gargoyle of a co-star), Merhige largely avoids re-enactment. Instead, he sneakily slips in suggestive bits of the original where you least expect them -- decadent, delicious little twists of light, color and geometry that create a foundation as purely visual as Nosferatu itself.

And as in Nosferatu, "Max Schreck" steals the show. Dafoe's freakish and feral vampire is not an anti-hero or a demon lover or an über-mensch, and there is none of the high-handedness or romanticism so often seen emanating from former Counts Dracula. It is Murnau, not the vampire, who is at once noble and amoral, monstrous and manipulative. Schreck is no match for him in cunning, only in ferocity. He is the Travis Bickle of the vampire kingdom, irascible, inarticulate and at the mercy of a hunger he cannot allay -- a bear in a trap, snapping at everything handy. But for all the ugliness, all the snarling and slavering and bat-biting, Dafoe still manages to find some pathos in Schreck, a tragic dimension somehow more real and more human than generally allowed within the conventions of the genre.

Alas, the very genre and the conventions Shadow of the Vampire so cleverly defies might make it hard for the Academy to reward this film as richly as it deserves -- should they choose to overlook my modest proposal, that is. That would be a shame. After almost 100 years of vampires -- hot vampires, hip vampires, buff vampires, black vampires, babe vampires, redneck vampires, wrestling vampires, rock 'n' roll vampires -- someone has finally found something new in a vampire movie. It's a nice irony that they had to go back to the first one to do it.



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