The moment Count Orlock (Willem Dafoe) first appears in Shadow of the Vampire, he is so utterly horrifying that the audience cannot resist a delighted little chuckle. Bald, gaunt and pointy-eared, with long, claw-like nails and eyes so intense they seem ready to pop right out of his head, this creature is nothing less than the id made flesh. Before Dafoe even speaks a word, we know this is a performance we'll never forget.
But Dafoe's singularly ghastly appearance is actually not so singular; those who have seen F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic Nosferatu have met Orlock before. Orlock was indelibly portrayed in Murnau's film by a now, relatively obscure fellow named Max Schreck; Shadow of theVampire's great conceit is that Schreck was no mere actor; he was an actual bloodsucker. Murnau (portrayed by John Malkovich in a really superb wig) is fully aware of Schreck's true nature, but the director doesn't care who Schreck chows down upon so long as the fiend keeps his fangs off anybody really integral to the production and hits his marks properly.
The characterization is arguably a bit unfair to the memory of the actual Murnau, although he gets off easy compared with poor Schreck, who is portrayed as a truly nightmarish creature, as horrifying as he is strangely pitiful. One of the film's funniest gags involves Schreck's terrible social skills; he has an abundance of animal cunning, but otherwise he just doesn't seem that bright. This is not your suave, Bela Lugosi-type vampire. For centuries, he's lived alone, venturing out by night to pounce upon his victims and drain the life from them, a lifestyle that doesn't do much for your conversational skills. Schreck has been a bloodsucker for so long he thinks nothing of snatching a bat from the air and feasting on it while the astonished crew looks on.
Dafoe has the time of his life here. He somehow gets a laugh with almost every move Schreck makes. As terrifying and tragic as this creature is, he's also hilarious. Malkovich is fine as Murnau, although I'm sure I'm not the only one who hasn't been able to fully appreciate any of his performances since Being John Malkovich. I keep looking into those chilly eyes and wondering if Orson Bean really is in there, telling Malkovich what to do.
Shadow of the Vampire is a worthy picture, but if it displays a flagrant disregard for the reputations of these two, justly acclaimed, film artists, it sometimes displays an equal disregard for narrative coherence. There are stretches of the film during which the plot ceases to make any sense at all; depending on your inclination, you either surrender and let it carry you along, or sit there sullenly waiting for somebody to explain what the hell is going on. The film doesn't really compare to the original Nosferatu, but it does effectively feed, vampire-like, off Murnau's film. And it's a dark enchanter in its own right.