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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 5/15/01

Shadow of the Vampire
2000 (2001) - Lion's Gate (Universal)

review by Greg Suarez of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

Shadow of the Vampire Film Rating: : B

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A-/B-

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B+/A-

Specs and Features

93 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, dual-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary with director E. Elias Merhinge, "making of" featurette, video interviews (with Merhinge, actor Willem Dafoe and producer Nicholas Cage), video montage of make-up process photos, video montage of production photos, trailers (for Begotten and Shadow of the Vampire), production notes, cast & crew bios, film-themed menus with music, scene access (18 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & DTS 5.1) and French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English

Ah, yes... Shadow of the Vampire. I have such mixed emotions about this film. From the perspective of a die-hard fan of 1922's Nosferatu, I could write a scathing piece about how completely far-fetched the premise is, and how I was thoroughly disappointed upon seeing the important film's history twisted into a black comedy/horror-fantasy. Just in case you haven't heard, the events portrayed in Shadow of the Vampire aren't exactly historically accurate. But from the perspective of a film buff, I could write a glowing review about how the film is a brilliant allegory of the "horrors" of filmmaking, focusing on overly demanding and viciously needy stars and the like. And let us not forget the great performances by John Malkovich, as the visionary filmmaker F.W. Murnau, and Willem Dafoe's Academy Award nominated turn as Max Schreck, the vampire-turned-actor who causes all kinds of problems with the production. With Shadow of the Vampire, you could say that I love it for what it is... and hate it for it's not. But overall, I'd say that I loved the film more than I hated it, once I caught on to what director E. Elias Merhige was trying to accomplish.

Shadow of the Vampire uses the making of 1922's Nosferatu as the backdrop for its story. The characters in the film are all based on the real-life cast and crew of the German film, except screenwriter Steven Katz and director E. Elias Merhige went with the twist that the historically unknown actor Max Schreck (Dafoe) was really (gulp) an honest-to-goodness vampire. As the film begins, it seems that the audience will be getting a behind-the-scenes look at how this classic movie was made, and portrayals of the visionaries behind it. But once shooting begins in the dark, Gothic land of Romania, the cast and crew (and therefore we) are introduced to Max Schreck and his unorthodox methods. This is when Shadow of the Vampire becomes pure fiction. Schreck "feeds" on several members of the crew, and becomes enamored with the glitz of movie making. He even begins making unreasonable demands of Murnau (Malkovich), as he learns of his importance to the director. Schreck's demanding attitude (and the fact that he's a real vampire) threatens to derail the entire project. Murnau - a consummate visionary and experimentalist - puts up with Schreck's evil presence because of the authenticity of having an actual vampire in his film. However, as the production draws closer to completion, Murnau becomes more aware of the true danger Schreck represents to his colleagues and his masterpiece, and must make some hard choices if he's to complete the film to his own lofty ideals of perfection.

As I exited the theater after first seeing Shadow, my first reaction was, "Why didn't they just let the story tell itself?" The making of Nosferatu was an event fraught with unparalleled visionary inspiration and mystery, and actor Max Schreck was a tremendous enigma all on his own. Some believe Schreck really was a vampire, however there are records of the actor working before and after Nosferatu was filmed (even if these records are a bit sketchy). So why not feed on this sketchiness and give the audience a straight-up look at what really happened when the film was created? Then again, if this more non-fiction approach were taken, then Merhige would've had to abandon his ultimate intention of the film, which was to use it as a metaphor. Merhige actually does a wonderful job of using Nosferatu, and his ability to intermingle black comedy with the decidedly dreary story gave the film more personality. I was slightly disappointed that I was not viewing a more authentic film about Nosferatu, however what Merhige has done with this film definitely works.

Universal's new DVD actually presents the film in surprisingly good quality. The transfer is in anamorphic widescreen, using a very clean print. The resulting video features excellent contrast and shadow detail and accurate, if occasionally muted, color. You will find that there's some artifacting present in some of the blacks, and there's some edge-enhancement visible on occasion. You may also notice that some scenes appear slightly soft looking. But these problems don't overly detract from the viewing experience. This is generally a good transfer.

The disc also has good audio features, including Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in both English and French, and an English DTS 5.1 track as well. The Dolby Digital audio is very good, but the soundfield tends to be a little bit directional. Clarity is excellent, however, and the score is very full sounding. The DTS track is definitely the better of the audio options on the disc, however. First of all, the DTS track is smoother, with a more unified and natural soundfield. The rear channels aren't exactly active, but they're used to create good ambience in the mix.

Although Universal doesn't bill this as a special edition, there is a decent batch of extras available here. First up is an audio commentary with director E. Elias Merhige. It's pretty dry, but he relates some interesting material. You can tell he put a lot of thought into the story, as he talks about the concepts of modern technology meeting the ancient world, and film as a force that's impacted the way we view the world in the 20th Century. There's also a pretty fluffy "making of" featurette that's only about 6 minutes long. Then there are brief video interviews with Willem Dafoe (3 mins), producer Nicholas Cage (8 mins) and the director (7 mins). Also included are video montages of production photographs and Dafoe's make-up process, which are interesting (but also very brief). A pair of trailers (for this film and Merhige's first effort, Begotten), production notes and cast & crew bios round out the extras. There's also the typical Universal "film recommendation" section, and a a promo for their DVD newsletter, but those are pretty much worthless (at least they didn't list them as extras on the sleeve).

You may like Shadows of the Vampire and you might not. Either way, Merhige's angle on the story is fascinating and makes for an undeniably interesting film. The DVD quality is good, and it delivers more material than you might expect, given that it's not a collector's edition. It's definitely worth a rent... and it's well worth owning if you like the film.

Greg Suarez

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