That film, "Shadow of the Vampire," chronicles the shooting of the earlier work, with one odd conceit: Murnau, brought to megalomaniacal life by John Malkovich, wants so desperately to depict a realistic vampire that he hires an actual one to play the part.
Of course, the vampire (Willem Dafoe) has his own desperate desires. As he begins to attack crew members and issue demands, a struggle for control over "Nosferatu" builds between Murnau and his supernatural star.
Aided by unbelievably good make-up, Dafoe precisely achieves the look and stilted body language of the silent screen's most enduring monster. He delivers an engagingly over-the-top impersonation of what "Nosferatu's" Orlok would have sounded like (had he sounded at all). While he's never as creepy as the original, that's on purpose -- this Orlok is real rather than ethereal.
Perhaps no one but Dafoe would have been as convincing in the part. But the part itself is flawed.
Orlok's lines vacillate uncertainly between drama and comedy. When Murnau asks why Orlok didn't feast on a less important victim than the director of photography, such as the script girl, Orlok replies, "I'll eat her later."
Later, though, when Orlok relates the classic loneliness of being undead -- while munching on a live bat -- the scene's tone is slippery and uneffective.
This uncertain tone crops up throughout the film. Do the creators wish to comment on the parasitic nature of the movie camera? On the impossibility of understanding history, like the actual events of the shoot? "Shadow" brushes up against these ideas and others, but refuses to explore them.
Worse, many characters remain flat to the end. With the exception of Orlok, characters develop mostly in trite or halfhearted ways.
Murnau's laudanum addiction, for instance, is presented so familiarly as to be not at all shocking. No vampire movie -- not even a comedy -- can succeed without a few good shocks.
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