'Shadow of the Vampire' Is The Best Vampire Movie No One Ever Talks About

Shadow of the Vampire is an art-house film that turned the vampire genre on its head when it was released in 2000. The movie follows the making of the 1922 silent classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. During filming, the cast and crew begin to realize that lead actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) is not an over-the-top thespian committed to his method, but a real, actual vampire who feeds upon his co-workers. John Malkovich plays Nosferatu director F. W. Murnau, a man determined to create art and who is willing to sacrifice the film's leading lady to do just that. 

What makes Shadow so different is the pathos it brings to the lead character - a ragged, old vampire who, despite his instincts to feed, comes to lament his lot in life. Dafoe's funny and sad portrayal of Schreck is the primary reason we root for him at all. With his strong performance - as well as those from Malkovich, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, and Eddie Izzard - and a new take on the genre, Shadow of the Vampire is one of the best, most original vampire movies to date. 

Photo: Shadow of the Vampire/Lionsgate

  • It Plays On The Popular Myth That Actor Max Schreck Did Not Exist

    While there was never a rumor circulating that Nosferatu actor Max Schreck was a real vampire, there was a myth going around that he never existed at all. It began in the 1950s when Greek filmmaker Ado Kyrou suggested that anyone could have played Count Orlock under the heavy makeup. The rumors persisted because, at the time, it was also believed that Schreck didn't have much of a career after Nosferatu.

    That proved to be untrue - he was a working actor in Germany until his passing in 1936. Shadow, however, played upon the idea that Schreck was a mystery and his name (which means "fright" in German) sounded fake.

  • It May Be The Best Performance Of Willem Dafoe's Career

    Willem Dafoe hits all the marks when it comes to playing Schreck. Although not as tall (Schreck was an imposing 6'3"; Dafoe is 5'9"), he captures the horror Schreck brought to the role but also the pathos of a person who is weak yet immortal.

    Dafoe is sad, horrific, and funny, all at the same time, and he's so believable as the beleaguered, perpetually hungry nightwalker that he won an Oscar nod for his portrayal. 

  • 'Shadow of the Vampire' Gives A Nod To The Litigious Origins Of 'Nosferatu'

    At the beginning of the film, Shadow tells audiences that Nosferatu was unauthorized. Indeed it was - the film was made without Florence Balcombe Stoker's blessing. Bram Stoker's widow owned the rights to Dracula and had no knowledge of Nosferatu until after it had premiered in Berlin. An anonymous source tipped her off and, with the help of a judge, she ordered all copies burned.

    However, a copy survived and made it to the United States, where there were no restrictions on it, as Dracula was public domain in the country. Nosferatu became a classic, influencing generations of filmmakers to come. In that respect, Malkovich's F. W. Murnau would have gotten his wish for immortality.

  • It Keeps The Audience On Its Toes By Shifting Wildly From Comedy To Horror

    Shadow of the Vampire not only pays homage to the making of Nosferatu, but it also serves as a witty and wry commentary on the parasitic and uncertain nature of filmmaking itself.

    Once the cast and crew make their way to the remote shooting location in Germany, things start to go awry with frightened villagers, a cinematographer who is the victim of Schreck's bite, disappearing crew members, and shaky investors. The film frequently shifts between comedy and horror as director F. W. Murnau drains the figurative and literal lifeblood from his cast and crew to make the ultimate artistic statement.

  • It's Inspired By Werner Herzog's Relationship With Klaus Kinski 

    The on-set relationship between Schreck and Murnau in Shadow of the Vampire is not only influenced by Nosferatu, but also by the relationship between German director Werner Herzog and his frequent leading man, Klaus Kinski.

    Kinski played Count Orlock (now called Count Dracula) in 1979's Nosferatu the Vampyre. Herzog and Kinski threatened to take each other's lives more than once over several films. 

    Herzog has also called real-life director F. W. Murnau "the best of them all":

    Watch [1922's] Nosferatu. It was so strong, so visionary. He made a dark film that in a way prefigured the horrors of the Nazi era. By making my own Nosferatu – certainly no remake, it was my own – I could take a bow to Murnau. Culturally, he gave me a ground to stand on.

    It's no wonder that Herzog's and Murnau's personalities are fused into Malkovich's performance. 

  • Vampires And Demanding Actors Are One And The Same During Production

    Once Nosferatu's production begins, the actors become on-set divas, including Schreck, who has demands throughout for things like makeup, food (i.e., "I don't think we need the writer any longer") and the lead actress, Greta (played by Catherine McCormack), whose substance addiction has spiraled out of control.

    Gustav Von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard) is also a problem for the production as a talentless silent film star with a massive ego.

    According to Izzard

    I might have underplayed it a bit because Gustav in the actual Nosferatu had some big bad acting. He does some movements which seem very over the top now. He wasn't a good actor. He was not their main choice, he wasn't even in the top ten. So he's not that great and does seem very over the top except for when he's with the vampire. But, when he's with Count Orlock he does put in a pretty good performance; maybe he's just scared out of his wits.