Imagine seeing a classic cult movie, letting your imagination run wild, wondering if there was more truth to the plot and the characters than it is let on, and making a movie about that. Shadow of the Vampire is one such meta-film where director E. Elias Merhige and writer Steven Katz tell their fictional tale of how the acclaimed German silent movie director F. W. Murnau made his classic 1992 horror film, Nosferatu.
The movie begins by showing how Murnau (John Malkovich), failing to secure the rights to Bram Stoker's Dracula, chooses to make a movie with a similar plot but with a different title. He recruits Albin Grau (Udo Kier), who produces the film; Henrick Galeen (Aden Gillet), who is the writer; Fritz Wagner (Cary Elwes), the replacement cinematographer; Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard) who plays the male lead the male lead; Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack), the leading lady; and Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) who plays the vampire Count Orlock. Katz and Merhige's imagination takes off with the fundamental assumption that Schreck didn't just play a vampire in 1992 film, but that he really was one.
John Malkovich plays a megalomaniacal Murnau, parodying the German director as well the way in which movies were made in the early days (and, perhaps, are still made today). Overall, the film comes off as a satire for the most part except for the fact that Willem Dafoe steals the show as the creepy Count Orlock. After this film, it might not be too hard to convince people that Dafoe is really a vampire (a plot for a meta-meta-film).
The cinematography is excellent. The film accomplishes two things through its visuals: one, it illustrates the period in which it was set using modern filming techniques; and two, it shows how the filming of the original Nosferatu must have occurred, and lends an authenticity to this by painstakingly recreating scenes from the famous film. The transitions between the Murnau's film and Merhige's meta-film are accomplished effectively. In the end, reality and fiction blur and merge into one and no one is wiser.
Shadow of the Vampire stops from being a completely scary movie, even though it is extremely creepy at times, thanks to the infusion of black comedy. The humour in this film, particularly the one-liners and the facial expressions of Schreck and Marnau, is witty and amusing.
Beyond the actual self-referential nature of the film lies commentary on the nature of contemporary movie-making. By illustrating the obsessions and excesses of Murnau, and by telling the tale of a vampire-star that sucks the life out of a film crew, Merhige is making a statement about the film industry. But that doesn't seem to have stopped him or anyone else in the industry from being sucked in anyway (pardon the pun), just like Murnau is in Shadow of the Vampire.