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Shadow of the Vampire

Saturn Films/AV Channel . R4 . COLOR . 88 mins . M15+ . PAL


There’s something about the challenges that faced early filmmakers and the innovative ways they found to conquer those challenges that fascinates people - and it’s not hard to see why. While modern moviemaking is still an art (most of the time), the easy availability of computer effects and other technologies has almost deadened audiences’ senses to the amount of effort that goes into creating a piece of visual entertainment. Back in 1922, of course, trying to put any kind of conceptual story on the screen was substantially more difficult. Cinema was still in its infancy, and with “talkies” still a few years away, filmmakers had to rely on static text screens to supply every line of “dialogue”. The cameras were hand-cranked. The film stock used was of poor quality, and its nitrate base meant that one wrong move could send the days work up in flames and a puff of noxious fumes. The only lighting available that was bright enough was also dangerous and unpredictable, the film stock so insensitive to light that the lamps were required to produce white-hot illumination that could be outdone in squint factor only by a small nuclear blast. The filmmakers of the early 1920s were indeed pioneers. They were also, obviously, rather brave people.

Shadow Of The Vampire takes that fledgling movie world - and specifically, F.W. Murnau’s world during the time he spent directing his classic, groundbreaking expressionist vampire film Nosferatu - and weaves around it a fictional story based around a real event. It’s a wonderful approach to the telling of a story - here, almost all of the characters actually existed, and the making of a very real movie is recreated with intricate detail. But screenwriter Steven Katz (who previously did some writing duty on the magnificent HBO series From The Earth To The Moon) takes things quite a bit further - this is, it’s important to note, no historical drama.

As Murnau (played here by John Malkovich) prepares to shoot Nosferatu, he finally finds the perfect person to play his vampire - a little-known actor named Max Schreck, who has some local stage fame but little else on his resume. Schreck, Murnau informs his cast and crew, is a method actor, a man who likes to get so far into the character that he’s playing that he virtually becomes them. Nothing unusual there, thinks the cast and crew - but Schreck, when he finally arrives at the Czech location where Murnau is shooting his film, is so very far into his role that he’s, well, somewhat disturbing. He will only shoot at night. He rarely communicates with the rest of the company. And before too long, he’s started feeding on the crew. Could he be an actor too absorbed by his role, or is he a real vampire?

Needless to say, Schreck - whose surname means “fright” in German! - wasn’t actually a member of the undead (he made many more films in Germany before dying of a heart attack in 1936). But the amusing alternate reality posited here by Katz and skilfully brought to life by director E. Elias Merhige (helming his first feature since 1991’s Begotten) is completely irresistible - especially with help of the movie’s trump card in the person of Willem Dafoe. One of America’s finest character actors, Dafoe plays Max Schreck with even more flamboyance and over-the-top Teutonic shtick than Gary Oldman’s memorable big-hair effort in Coppola’s version of the Dracula story. While all around him constantly lapse into semi-American accents (with, of course, the exception of German actor Udo Kier), Dafoe happily plays Schreck with the most ludicrously over-the-top accent in recent memory, simultaneously grinding his teeth, rolling his eyes and rubbing his prosthetically enhanced bony fingers in vampiric glee. The man may spend much of his screen life playing generic sneering bad guys, but don’t be fooled - this man has range. After all, this is the guy that played Jesus Christ to perfection only 13 years ago.

The supporting cast (including Catherine McCormack, the ever-British Cary Elwes and a sadly under-utilised Eddie Izzard) do a fine job, and the movie is loaded with both atmosphere and detail; ultimately, though, it never quite reaches the heights that the concept promises, and while there are many memorable scenes to be found within, there are just a few too many opportunities left begging in the latter half of the film. Part of the problem is that we never really connect with Murnau in any meaningful way - Malkovich plays him flamboyantly, but doesn’t convey much aside from external bluster. The film really belongs to Dafoe’s Schreck, but the story here focuses on Murnau, who Malkovich plays a little too unconvincingly for the story to really click - it’s almost as though he’s decided that Murnau was too silly to be played straight, even though a more “authentic” portrayal could well have had audiences thinking they were watching a documentary. Of course, it’s a hard line to straddle, and while Shadow Of The Vampire may not come equipped with quite as much dramatic and scriptwriting skill as other recent films with a similarly self-aware approach, it still works as pure entertainment, thanks to skilful direction, photography and production design - as well as some seriously over-the-top acting.


Presented at 1.78:1 and 16:9 enhanced, this video transfer of Shadow Of The Vampire is very good and decidedly faithful to the intended look of the film, though it never quite manages to reach the high standards set by modern state-of-the-art telecine transfers. The main issue here is film grain - there’s a fair bit of it, and while this movie was shot on a fairly low budget, the problem more likely lies with the equipment used to do the video transfer itself, which looks very much like it was done on lower-budget equipment. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of detail to be seen throughout, and both black levels and shadow detail (very important in a film such as this) are perfectly fine - though occasionally extreme contrast is a problem (one most likely intended by the director). While it represents the film well, this transfer isn’t quite as good as it could have been - but make no mistake, it’s still of a high standard. There are no problems with compression artefacts throughout the film.

Ultimately, there’s only one real complaint. And sadly, it’s a big one. Shadow Of The Vampire was shot for projection at 2.35:1, a fact proved on this very disc by both the format of the title cards used in the film itself, as well as on the production video monitors that are seen in the b-roll footage included amongst the extras. That same extra feature also clearly shows a clapperboard with “Super 35” written on it. While that film format allows for more unobtrusive resizing of the frame, this is not the way this film was intended to be seen by its director, a fact once again proven by the brief monitor views seen in the b-roll footage - this one was composed for 2.35:1, with only scant regard given to the out-of-frame material that would end up on compromised home video versions. It’s worth noting that Universal’s US DVD of this film is presented in its correct aspect ratio,


Despite the indication on the back of the DVD packaging that the disc includes both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks, the disc in fact only contains the 5.1 version of the movie’s audio. While hardly an aural effects-fest, the soundtrack serves the production perfectly well, with exceptionally crisp and well-balanced dialogue and subtle use of effects, which are well placed in a very natural way across the surround stage. There’s plenty of dynamic range here too, and the 5.1 track downmixes very transparently to stereo or surround, making the absence of a 2.0 track irrelevant.


As with most of the titles they’ve authored so far, Madman Interactive have done some fabulous work on the look and feel of this disc, the wonderfully evocative animated menus capturing the mood of the material perfectly. The chapter selection menu features full-motion video and sound for each chapter, something that’s previously been Roadshow territory; the only complaint on those is that the navigation method is a bit counter-intuitive. That’s a minor complaint, though - this is a very stylishly authored disc.

Director Commentary: E. Elias Merhige tackles his first commentary with a little enthusiasm and a dash of obvious nervousness, and does a reasonable job. He’s not a constant talker, but when he does speak he seems happier talking about the story and the characters than he does with the more technical aspects of the film. This is a bit of a shame - this is, after all, a film buff’s movie at heart - but there is plenty of fascinating information to be found here regardless.

Production Notes: Seven pages of the standard press-kit spiel about the making of the film.

Featurette: A US-produced, six-minute EPK-style (with added substance) look at the making of the film, with some fascinating on-set footage that reveals, amongst other things, that the original title of this movie was Burned To Light. There are some interesting insights from the actors here, and Eddie Izzard actually seems to score more screen time in this EPK than he does in the actual movie…!

Schreck Make-up Application: A short piece - presented as two video windows inside the menu design - detailing how Willem Dafoe’s Max Schreck makeup was applied.

On Set: Okay, some like their b-roll footage, others hate it. This reviewer loves it. This section comprises eight minutes of raw video footage shot on set while the film was in production; as is almost never the case, it gives the interested fan of the film a chance to see what it was like on the set without the usual garbage narration from Entertainment Tonight wannabe voiceover men. There is also an extended section at the end showing some more of the application of Dafoe’s character makeup.

Photo Montage: A different way of presenting a “photo gallery’ on DVD, and in this reviewer’s opinion a much better method than the usual interminable “navigate thumbnail images via chapter keys in complete silence” method. Here, full-screen photos are gracefully dissolved into one another slideshow-style, while the film’s key orchestral theme plays in the background. Run time for this presentation is 2 minutes 44 seconds.

Cast And Crew: Now this is nice stuff. While there are bios and filmographies for only two cast members (Dafoe and Malkovich) and three crew (director Merhige, writer Katz and producer Nicholas Cage), if you select the “interview” item at the bottom of each person’s pages, you get a screen with a series of links to interview segments, presented in full-motion video inside the menu screen layout. Very, very stylishly done, this is a logical progression from Roadshow’s old “interview fragments” working method, but applied here in a truly user-friendly way.

Trailer: The 90-second US trailer for the film, presented at 1.66:1 and not anamorphically enhanced, with stereo audio. Cheesy it may be, but hey, it has The Brother Of The Guy With The Voice That Does Trailers on it, so it’s well worth a nice overdramatic listen.

Dr Murnau And Nosferatu: Nine text pages about Murnau, and ten about the creation of his most famous film.

Madman Propaganda: Our favourite regular inclusion on discs authored by the Madman team, this is another trailer compendium for other current and upcoming titles from the same people, this time including Paul Cox’s Innocence, The Monkey’s Mask, Mullet, the rather out-there Ring 2, Amores Perros and Blood. They’re of varying quality, with the Amores Perros trailer in the worst condition and not surprisingly, the trailer for the just-in-cinemas Mullet looking pristine in all its Panavision glory.


An inventive, adventurous and ambitious flight of fancy that features another extraordinary performance by the brilliant Willem Dafoe, Shadow Of The Vampire doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its concept, but nevertheless is going to be great entertainment for both film buffs and fans of classic silent horror. Madman’s DVD is of a very high standard technically - particularly in the authoring department - but sadly uses a transfer of the film that is in the wrong aspect ratio, one which (given the 1.78:1 image on this disc) was most likely done for broadcast and pay TV. A strongly visual movie such as this deserves better, and while the video transfer here is fine overall in terms of quality, major points have been deducted for the error in aspect ratio - the most serious “artefact” of them all.

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      And I quote...
    "An inventive, adventurous and ambitious flight of fancy... (that) sadly uses a transfer of the film that is in the wrong aspect ratio..."
    - Anthony Horan
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