When I wrote my review of Snowpiecer, Kate Elliott made an interesting comment. She said, "Most of my trouble with this film as I watched it came about because I went in with expectations that it was going to be a science fiction film about what it would be like to live on Earth after the world froze, and it is actually (as you so carefully discuss here) an entirely different film."
I experienced the same feeling with Shadow of the Vampire. I initially went into the film with the mindset that the movie was horror (thank you, Netflix, for that erroneous marketing). That expectation almost caused me to shut the movie down at one point. I felt that Malkovich's acting was stylized to the point that it was way over the top, which surprised me, because I've always found him to be such a subtle actor.
Midway through the movie, I realized that this film wasn't intended to be horror at all. Shadow of the Vampire is a comedy, but not in the slapstick comedic form most modern audiences are used to seeing. This is a coy film that says almost as much about the art of making movies as it shreds the fallacy of the vampire as a romantic figure.
The movie is a fictitious account of the making of the classic silent film Nosferatu, and alleges that the German director, Frederich Wilhelm Murnau (played by John Malkovich) found a real vampire to star as Count Orlok (Willem Dafoe, almost unrecognizable in his make-up). Murnau tells his film crew that "Max Schreck" is an obscure character actor, who sinks himself into his roles so thoroughly that he will wear make-up and portray the vampire even when they are not filming. This form of method acting will lend believability to the shots and bring greatness to the film. What Murnau doesn't tell his crew is that he has made a pact with Schreck to allow the vampire to feed on his crew while they are filming. In return, Murnau has the rare opportunity to film an actual vampire.
Enter Dafoe as the vampire in a nuanced performance filled with humor and poignance. The humor comes during the pantomime of filming the actual scenes. Dafoe's emotional vampire is the perfect foil to Malkovich's fantacial artist. And it is wildly apparent that Dafoe is having fun with the character.
At one point, Murnau tells Schreck to give him an expression of longing, and Schreck merely looks confused. Murnau asks the vampire to think of the one thing that he wants the most. What is the thing that he desires but cannot have? The vampire's countenance softens, and he murmurs, "To see the sun."
And that is how Dafoe renders this vampire ... well, human, if you will. Little moments of longing and sadness for the man he once was. He possesses an animalistic need for survival while being cognizant of his humanity slipping away. He is old and lonely. The hours have become a burden to him, because he is forced to watch others live and die while he endures through the centuries all alone. Dafoe manages to shatter every conceit we entertain about the romance of the vampire and eternal life. There is nothing romantic about Schreck. At the same time, he doesn't give in to despair, and his suffering is almost noble. Like I said: a very nuanced performance that played very well against Malkovich's high-strung director.
A couple of scenes were laugh out loud funny, but overall, the humor was very tongue-in-cheek. Watching them recreate the original scenes from Nosferatu was fun too. In the end, I'm glad I stuck with the film.
So now we're back to expectations. It's so easy to judge a film, or a book, based on expectations created either by myself or marketing ploys. I've always tried to dampen my expectations so I can see more clearly what the artist (the painter, the author, the filmmaker) wanted to bring to their project. Nor am I any more immune to marketing than anyone else, and I, too, can easily make poor judgment calls about a story. Sometimes I have to stop and remember: Not all stories fit neatly into one square box and neither should our expectations.
If you haven't seen Shadow of the Vampire, I highly recommend the film. Just remember to let yourself have fun while watching it.