Shadow of the Vampire


Dinner is served.

Dinner is served.

(2000) Horror (Lionsgate) John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Aden Gillett, Nicholas Elliott, Ronan Vibert, Sophie Langevin, Myriam Muller, Milos Hlavak, Marja-Leener Junker, Derek Kueter, Norman Golightly, Patrick Hastert, Sacha Ley, Ingeborga Dapkunaite. Directed by E. Elias Merhige

 

Since we cringed in caves at the dawn of time, we have been scared of the dark. The dark hides the things we can’t see; our imagination makes those things hideous. The noise of wind rustling through the trees becomes a stranger, with a knife, creeping through the grass. Fear has always been more a product of our imagination more than anything else.

That fear was never better crystallized than in the masterwork novel of Bram Stoker, Dracula. It captured the imagination of millions from the time it was published even up to this 21st century and most likely beyond. Stoker made the monsters of our imagination real, demons in the dark made flesh. That’s a dangerous thing in and of its own self.

Filmmaker F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) was fascinated by the novel, and yearned to film it. He was denied permission by the Stoker estate, but was determined to make the ultimate horror movie anyway.  Murnau recognized that realism would make his horror all the more effective. To that end, he hired an unusual actor by the name of Max Schreck (which, translated from German, means “shriek”) to play his Count Orlock, the Dracula of his film. Schreck (Dafoe) is a strange sort who demands that he be addressed as Orlock, and is in character (and the accompanying creepy-looking costume) at all times. Most of the cast and crew assign this as the quirks of an actor and think nothing of it.

It appears that Murnau’s vision is being realized. The film, Nosferatu, is turning out to be everything he hoped – one of the classic horror films of all time. Still, things are not quite right. His cinematographer (Gillett) has taken mysteriously ill and is near death. Murnau must shut down the production to procure a new one. While he is gone, mysterious deaths haunt the production.

When Murnau returns with his drug-addled replacement (Elwes), it soon becomes apparent that the terrifying Schreck is much more than he seems. And he has an unhealthy obsession with the movies leading lady (McCormick, Mel Gibson’s wife in Braveheart). You see, Schreck is not some Stanislavsky disciple taking the method to extremes; he actually IS undead.

What a fascinating and terrific idea for a movie this is. Nosferatu remains one of the most brilliant and terrifying movies ever made, and the mystery surrounding the real Max Schreck makes for some interesting speculation. “Max Schreck” was almost certainly a stage name; nobody knows for sure who he really was. Heck, for all we know he could have been a vampire.

Screenwriter Steven Katz was inspired by the original film, and includes many little touches that ring true; the decadence of jazz age Berlin; the solitude and creepiness of the castle exteriors. He even adds the little factoid that Murnau’s crew shot their movies while wearing lab coats and goggles, giving the proceedings a pseudo-scientific air.

Director Elias Merhige (Begotten) has assembled an impressive cast, including one-time Warhol associate Udo Kier as a producer. Dafoe gives an Oscar-worthy performance (and in fact he was nominated) as the sinister Schreck, an ancient creature who has grown too old, watching a century he does not understand encroach into the only world he has ever known. It is strangely affecting.

The problem here is that Merhige often sacrifices his story for the sake of atmosphere and art. He is successful at creating a genuinely creepy vibe, using old-time film effects and title cards to enhance the mood and set the period. As a result, the look of the film holds up next to the original, a not-inconsiderable task in itself.

But an overly long opening credits sequence put my jaw on edge from the beginning, not the way you want your audience to go into a movie like this. I found the pacing overall to be a bit slow. The film’s climax is also a bit off-putting.

That said, this is a genuine creep-out that will stand your hair on end in various places. Dafoe’s performance by itself is commendable. It’s funny, sad and terrifying all at once. Shadow of the Vampire wisely uses the best monster of all – our imaginations and our fear of the dark – to its advantage.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Dafoe. Brilliant concept. Creepily atmospheric.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Style over substance. Overly long opening titles sequence.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of horrific images, some drug use and sexuality, a bit of violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The producers of Spider-Man hired Dafoe to be their Green Goblin based on his performance here.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a make-up montage that shows the process of actor Willem Dafoe going from human to Nosferatu in a matter of minutes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORANCE: $11.2M on an $8M production budget; the film was shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scream 3

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Internship

 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Sean Connery is the epitome of an extraordinary gentleman.

(2003) Action (20th Century Fox) Sean Connery, Richard Roxburgh, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Naseeruddin Shah, Tony Curran, Shane West, Jason Flemyng, Max Ryan, Tom Goodman-Hill, David Hemmings, Terry O’Neill, Rudolf Pellar, Robert Willox. Directed by Stephen Norrington

 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on a wonderful graphic novel by Alan Moore, had such high expectations among its fans that almost no movie could meet them. Consequently it got terrible reviews and a great deal of Internet drubbing, which is too bad, since it’s quite a nice little movie.

The setting is just before the 20th century. The legendary African explorer and adventurer Allan Quatermain (Connery) lives a semi-retired life, having already found King Solomon’s Mines. He is recruited to save England from a madman, one who is using terrible technology to set world powers against one another in an effort to start a World War.

Queen Victoria is very much against the idea, so she has the mysterious M (Roxburgh) recruit the most extraordinary team of people she can find; Mina Harker (Wilson), who suffers from an unusual blood disease; the brilliant Captain Nemo (Shah), captain of the fabulous Nautilus; Rodney Skinner (Curran), a petty thief who happens to be invisible; and Henry Jekyll (Flemyng), who hides a hideous dark side. They also recruit the fey Dorian Grey (Townsend), a brilliant mind who has seen it all.

Attacked by the goons of their quarry, they escape with the aid of Tom Sawyer (West), a brash American Secret Service agent. Together, as a league, they journey to Venice to prevent the destruction of a peace conference. They are too late to entirely prevent the bombs from going off, but by teaming together they manage to save the city and most of its populace. They find that there is a traitor in their midst, and their adversary is not who they think he is at all.

This film has taken its share of critical abuse, and some of it is deserved. There are some definite leaps in logic; having a sub the size of the Nautilus floating in the canals of Venice is ludicrous at best. The computer-generated Mr. Hyde is dreadful. However, despite the reported problems on the set between Connery and director Stephen Norrington, Connery handles his role like a pro, making a believable Quatermain. He is gruff and irritable but absolutely money in the clutch. This is Connery’s film and he carries it well.

The atmosphere of a Victorian era slightly warped from the reality of history comes off nicely. There are plenty of terrific effects to make this big screen-friendly. The cast, once you get past Connery, is decent enough but nobody really stands out except for Townsend as Dorian Grey, channeling “Project Runway” a bit too much. Wilson, so good in the “La Femme Nikita” TV series, has plenty of screen presence but it’s not really channeled well, more the fault of the filmmakers than the actress.

Does it measure up to its source comic? Depends on what you mean. And it shouldn’t have to. Comparing a movie to a comic is like comparing a car to a plane. They are different media with different qualities. The comic book League is one of the best (IMHO) ever, and the film wisely departs from its storyline. Why compete with greatness when you can, perhaps, establish your own?  Of course, the movie doesn’t really establish greatness but it does try. Seeing all these beloved fictional characters together is a hoot, but ultimately is disappointing; you don’t get the sense of epic adventure their original tales gave us.

The movie actually did better in the global market than it did here in America. Although room is left at the end for a sequel, you will never see one. Moore has divorced himself completely from the movie, which in all fairness, he has pretty much done with every movie made on his source material. Still, it’s a wonderful concept, and the atmosphere combined with Connery as an adventure hero is enough to make this a movie worth seeing – especially inasmuch as this is, in all likelihood, Connery’s final film.

WHY RENT THIS: What is in all likelihood Connery’s final film performance is delivered with all the fire and charisma of all his previous ones. Fascinating concept. A kick to see all those beloved fictional heroes together.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks the epic spirit of adventure of the source. A bit silly in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s plenty of action violence, a few bad words scattered here and there and a bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the first five movies to be released on Blu-Ray by Fox.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $179.3M on a $78M production budget; despite the perception that this was a flop,it actually made a slight profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ice Age: Continental Drift