Dracula Bites Again

'Shadow' is a dim addition to the vampire genre.

Jesus Christ has appeared as a character in 135 films, but that hardly makes him the most filmed figure. In fact, Dracula has appeared in more. Well, so has Sherlock Holmes, but that's beside the point.

The thing is, the Dracula story and the Jesus story are pretty similar. Both involve drinking human blood, both involve rising from the dead, both involve a man with eternal life who can give that gift to others. Of course, only one of them has inspired hot goth chicks to wear torn fishnet stockings and black slip dresses when they go out dancing, so I think the winner in the cool contest would have to be Dracula. But it's a close contest.

What makes Dracula the more interesting character, though, is not just his sex appeal, but the pathos of the story. It's pretty hard to relate to this Jesus guy. I mean, he's either the son of God, or God, or both, depending on which sect you adhere to. That hardly makes him sympathetic.

Dracula, on the other hand, is all suffering and angst. Whereas the wooden stake that kills Jesus is not enough to keep him down for long, Dracula has to be on constant guard against narrow-minded people who want to put that stake through his heart and end his cursed life forever. Jesus doesn't seem to care about love, except in the watered-down sense of "love of mankind." Dracula is forever pining for the fleshy human love that he can never have. Jesus is basically the well-heeled socialite, and Dracula is the high school outcast, haunted, hunted, unable to get the girl.

Shadow of the Vampire takes up the Dracula story from the perspective of one of its most celebrated film incarnations, F.W. Murnau's 1922 film Nosferatu. Murnau couldn't get the rights to use the name Dracula so he called his master of darkness Count Orlock, but otherwise it's a complete rip-off of the Bram Stoker classic. Nosferatu is a cool film, well worth renting, even if only to see what kind of special effects someone could come up with when "special effects" hadn't even been invented.

Director E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire casts John Malkovich as Murnau, who is in the midst of making his masterpiece when cast and crew members start to mysteriously disappear. Suspicions fall upon Max Schreck, the eccentric actor playing Count Orlock. Schreck is such a hardcore method actor that none of the cast or crew ever see him in anything but his vampire makeup, and he refuses to be addressed as Max, answering only to Count Orlock.

As filming progresses it seems that Schreck may not be what he seems to be, or rather, he may be exactly what he seems to be. As the cast goes deeper into a Weimar-era frenzy of sex and drugs, the possibility of Schreck's actually being a vampire becomes ever more real.

The horror-film-within-a-horror-film genre is now about as overused as the Dracula genre, and setting it in Germany between the wars does little to liven it up. There are too few good moments to make Shadow of the Vampire worth seeing, which is a shame, because it features at least one amazing performance.

Willem Dafoe, who, coincidentally, has also played Jesus, is perfect as the vampiric count. He really picks up on the idea of Dracula as the misfit and outcast, the kid that didn't get to go to the prom. His movements are eerily consistent, his expressions unsettling, and his delivery painfully sad. He recounts the longing of the vampire, his desire for light and food and a bed, all the things he's denied, with such nuance that this bizarre character comes off as both completely inhuman and utterly sympathetic. It would be Oscar caliber stuff, if they gave Oscars for great performances and not just for playing the most politically fashionable character of the year.

Unfortunately, this isn't enough to lift Shadow out of the doldrums. In a film about vampires and filmmaking, made, one assumes, by a filmmaker, it's odd to find that the director seems to know exactly what makes vampires interesting while having no idea about what makes filmmaking interesting. When Dafoe isn't on the screen little of interest occurs. The sets are cool, the costumes have a period elegance, but the effect of the visuals is usually canceled out by the lack of action, such that watching much of Shadow of the Vampire is the mathematical equivalent of having no experience at all.

Shadow of the Vampire opens Friday at Catalina (881-0616), Century El Con (202-3343) and Century Gateway (792-9000).
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