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

 

Advertisements

Hugo


Hugo

Time flies when you're making a Scorsese film.

(2011) Family (Paramount) Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emil Lager. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

Our dreams guide us, sometimes into odd territories. We can be spirited away to fantastic landscapes or sent hurtling back into our own memories, into our own past. Dreams are the lenses through which we view reality.

Hugo Cabret (Butterfield) lives in the cavernous Montparnasse train station through a set of tragic circumstances. He fixes the clocks and makes sure that they are running on time – important work for a train station, particularly in Paris in the early 1930s.

He didn’t always live this way. He once lived with his father, a clockmaker, who had discovered an automaton (a kind of early robot) while doing some work in a museum. His father had attempted to fix the machine but now it was up to Hugo to get the thing to work. He is convinced that the automaton carries some sort of message from his father and in order to fix it, pilfers parts from a grumpy toymaker named Georges (Kingsley).

Hugo is also trying to stay one step ahead of the station inspector, one Inspector Gustav (Cohen). Gustav, who has an eye on pretty flower girl Lisette (Mortimer), was injured in the War and wears a mechanical leg brace to allow him to walk in a kind of shuffling gait. It freezes up from time to time and Gustav must move it manually, causing him a great deal of humiliation. Gustav relies on a Doberman to help him patrol the station where he regularly catches orphans like Hugo to send them to the orphanage. Hugo knows if Gustav catches him, the automaton will be taken away and he’ll never find out what his father was trying to tell him.

Aiding Hugo in his quest is Isabelle (Moretz), the goddaughter of the toymaker who is being raised by Papa Georges and his wife Jeanne (McCrory). Isabelle is a plucky sort who can relate to the intense and somewhat shell-shocked Hugo. She loves a good mystery and yearns for a good adventure of her own. She spends most of her time reading books lent to her by the kindly bookseller Labisse (Lee).

The automaton has all the parts it needs but lacks a heart-shaped key to fit a heart-shaped lock that will wind up the mechanism and get it working. Hugo must find that key and in the discovery of it will find out that the magic of movies, which he attended with his father, was far more ephemeral than he thought and that fame is even more fleeting than that. He will also discover a key to Papa Georges’ past and a path to his own future.

The movie is based on an illustrated novel by Brian Selznick called The Invention of Hugo Cabret and marks Scorsese’s first foray into family films as well as his first 3D movie. Once again the great director has hit a home run.

The setting is amazing. Much of Hugo’s world revolves around the inner workings of the clocks of the station, so there are gears and cogs aplenty. The train station itself recalls the romance of train travel of the era much as Murder on the Orient Express did. Labisse’s bookshop is a magical repository of imagination and knowledge, much larger than you’d expect to find at a train station.

Much of the movie rests on thin shoulders of Butterfield and Moretz. Moretz is one of the better actresses of her generation, with films like Kick-Ass and (500) Days of Summer to her credit. She has a role that requires her to be the kind of English plucky heroine that have overpopulated film and literary franchises like The Chronicles of Narnia‘s Susan Pevensey and Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger. Moretz gives the role a little bit more soul and humanity than you might expect.

Butterfield has amazing blue eyes and has received some criticism for his role for not expressing a lot of emotion. Personally, I think that was the perfect way to play the part. With all the things Hugo has gone through to this point, I think it would be natural for him to be a bit shell-shocked and plenty wary about expressing his emotions as he’s had so much taken away from him and so many people leave him. In the film’s final scenes he seems to finally be showing some joy and love and for my money it’s a terrific performance. Phooey on the critics who say different.

Ben Kingsley is, well, Ben Kingsley. We all know he is one of the great actors of the past 20 years, going back to his scintillating performance as Gandhi. He inhabits the role of Georges with dignity and a hidden reservoir of pain. I think it’s one of his best performances ever, one that should merit some awards consideration although thus far it hasn’t.

A word about the 3D. Generally I’m not one to recommend 3D to anyone – it rarely enhances the movie and more often than not, detracts from it, forcing viewers to look at a cinema screen through polarized sunglasses which does nothing for the brightness and the color of the film. However, here the movie actually benefits from the 3D which opens up Hugo’s world and makes it more lifelike and real. This is one of those rare times when I’d urge those of you going to see the movie to see it in 3D if you can. It’s well worth the upcharge for once.

The movie obviously has a direct connection to a soft spot in Scorsese’s heart. His passion for the preservation of old films is well-known and you can almost feel the pain in the great filmmaker’s soul when he talks about how the celluloid from old silent film were melted down to make the heels in ladies boots. Through Hugo we get to experience a time when movies were new and nobody quite knew what to do with them. While I won’t reveal the plot point that takes Hugo Cabret from automatons to motion pictures, I will say that film buffs and history buffs will be pleasantly surprised by the turn the movie makes. Be wary though – other reviews tell you precisely what that turn is and since I hadn’t read any before seeing the movie, I found the turn to be more effective.

All in all, this is a delightful motion picture, one full of fantasy and clearly a labor of love. Even the villains of the piece aren’t all bad – they have just had some hard times. It’s a bit on the long side – if your children are fidgety you might want to take that into account – however this is a terrific family movie that the kids may actually enjoy less than their parents; but the kids should like it a lot.

REASONS TO GO: Generally raises an air of wonder and magic. Terrific performances all around. Fantastic sets realistically depict Paris of the early 30s but also lend an air of fantasy.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too long for fidgety sorts.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence, children put in peril and of course, smoking. Fiendish!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The automaton is based on actual machines that draw similarly complex drawings, complete with head movements and eyes following their own drawing except the real ones were built in the 18th century – they can be seen at the Musee D’Art et d’Histoire of Neuchatel in Switzerland.

HOME OR THEATER: I never thought I’d say this but not only do I recommend seeing this in a theater, but it should also be seen in 3D.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Agora