Real life is a total bore, which is why most “based on a true story” movies come across as fairly mundane in comparison to revisionist pieces that play fast & loose with the facts. There are few biopics & fact-faithful dramas that can stand up to the entertainment value of Sofia Coppola dressing up Marie Antoinette in Chuck Taylors & Siouxsie and The Banshees or Todd Haynes supposing that Oscar Wilde was a space alien who passed on extraterrestrial queer magic to glam rock gods/lovers “David Bowie” & “Iggy Pop.” These factual liberties always rely on the excuse that they are aiming for a greater macro truth larger in scale than the finer details of reality, but in a more practical sense they also make for better, more interesting art. The early 00s horror comedy Shadow of the Vampire, co-produced by Nic Cage of all people, dives head first into this playful style of historical revisionism in its retelling of the production of the 1922 silent horror classic Nosferatu. On one level, the film aims to capture a greater truth about the essence of Nosferatu, particularly that the film’s power lies in the illusion that its monstrous star, Max Schreck, is a real life vampire & a force of Evil, not just a great method actor in harrowing makeup. Mostly, though, the movie uses that conceit as an excuse to have fun with the setting & aesthetic of a silent film shoot, an excellent springboard for horror-themed comedic absurdity.
Besides its irreverent search for entertainment value over realism, Shadow of the Vampire largely excels based on the casting of its leads. Willem Dafoe’s vampiric estimation of Max Schreck & John Malkovich’s perverted/exasperated straight man visionary F.W. Murnau, the director of Nosferatu, are excellent foils for each other, so similar in their violently ambitious thirsts that the actors could have too easily swapped roles. Dafoe’s physical comedy as Schreck, particularly in the buffoonish rodent faces he makes between takes, somewhat disrupt his illusion of a dangerous monster by turning him into a horny goofball. Murnau’s fear of & exhaustion with Schreck’s antics, which take vampiric method acting to the point of real life murder & blood-drinking, are hilarious in their participation in a straight man tradition. He struggles in vain to maintain normalcy & complete the shoot despite his star (who may or may not be a “real” vampire) gradually murdering his entire crew. The movie has some fun with real-life Nosferatu lore, especially in the detail that it shamelessly ripped off Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, but mostly just has a laugh at the idea of method acting taken to a cartoonish extreme. There’s a pretty clear road map in that line of humor for a movie to make fun of Jared Leto’s behind the scene antics on the set of Suicide Squad, presuming anyone remembers that film in 80 years. Imagine a comedy about DCEU execs wondering in fear if Leto was just a pretentious ass terrorizing his coworkers with dead pigs & used condoms for no reason or if he was a real life murder-clown. Shadow of the Vampire already delivers that kind of meta movie-production humor, one that works especially well whenever Malkovich & Dafoe share the screen.
Even with its irreverent historical revisionism & violent screwball comedy antics, Shadow of the Vampire still impresses with its sense of visual style. With the intertitles, Art Deco stylization, and wood panel cameras of the silent film era, the movie has much classier stage dressing than what would typically accompany comedies this goofy. As an actor who had to survive Shreck’s vampiric thirsts, Eddie Izzard especially has fun with the vaudeville style vamping that defined the performances in most silent pictures. This is especially amusing in juxtaposition with the snootiness of Murnau’s sense of self-importance & the supposed prestige of black & white filmmaking. Shadow of the Vampire also frames this imagery with the drastic Dutch angles & color filters of a comic book movie to match its over-the-top tone, recalling touchstones like Burton’s Batman & Raimi’s Darkman. Unfortunately, this visual energy doesn’t bleed over much to the narrative style. Shadow of the Vampire is structured in a way where Nosferatu is shot in sequence so that the movie & the movie-within-the-movie can run parallel in their progress. It’s a clever structure that pays off well overall, but something feels frustratingly unrushed in the stretches where the production of Nosferatu is halted due to Schreck’s bloodthirsty ways. Whenever the Nosferatu film shoots are derailed, Shadow of the Vampire feels like a kind of hangout film, very much relaxed in delivering its horror & comedy beats. I don’t especially mind hanging out on these silent horror sets in this comic book vision of 1920s Berlin, but it’s rarely a good idea for a comedy to feel this unintentionally labored.
Most importantly, as an awkward workplace comedy where a madman pervert auteur struggles to maintain order despite his star actor (who may or may not be a vampire) murdering the rest of his crew, Shadow of the Vampire is damn funny. It pretends to deliver the sophisticated, well-behaved tone of a sober biopic, but everything about Dafoe’s squinched-up, bloodthirsty rat faces & Malkovich’s over-the-top exasperation is hilariously absurd. The odd thing is that this tone is just as true to the spirit of the original Nosferatu as the suggestion that Max Schreck may have been a “real” vampire. The actor’s 1922 performance is oddly tinged in slapstick humor, including one scene where he carries his own coffin under his arm that would have been considered “too much” if restaged here. It’s not difficult to see why he’s been resurrected as a half creepy/half goofy comedy icon in films like What We Do in the Shadows & Shadow of the Vampire, even if they had to tear apart the truth to get to his essence.