A blog series about Gothic horror media that inspired Project Vampire Killer, my novel about vampires, cinema-as-sorcery, space weed, and the glorious Gothic ascendant
Shadow of the Vampire (directed by E. Elias Merhige and written by Steven Katz) is about the making F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), the unauthorized adaptation of the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, made without permission of the estate and almost lost due to the enforcement of copyright law. Nosferatu is not the first horror film, but it is the most important of the early 20th century, establishing a visual language of cinematic horror that has remained woven into horror and non-horror films through the present day. Shadow of the Vampire is in dialogue with Nosferatu, but goes beyond being a film with a clever idea—what if Max Schreck was a real vampire?—and presents compelling ideas about obsession, the destructive nature of creation, and of reality itself.
A real vampire being at the heart of a horror movie production is an idea that I retooled and redeployed for Project Vampire Killer. In my novel, vampires and supernatural forces haunt a contemporary horror film production, presented as both a threat and as vulnerable to exploitation via cinematic sorcery. This is a continuation of the idea that the supernatural or cosmic can be harnessed or responsible for the production of film in Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization, The Crypt of Blood: A Halloween TV Special and the short stories “The Secret Goatman Spookshow” and “Huntin’ Them Hills with Joel and Big Howie” (both of which appear in The Secret Goatman Spookshow and Other Psychological Warfare Operations).
In my new novel, this idea is represented by “cinema goblin,” an arcane method to achieve artistic and political goals. This personal obsession of mine undoubtedly has its origins in films like The Blair Witch Project and its misunderstood and oft-maligned sequel, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness and Cigarette Burns, Ghostwatch, and others.
In Shadow of the Vampire, director F. W. Murnau (played masterfully by John Malkovich) will go to any length to capture horror on film, including finding and employing a real vampire (Willem Dafoe, perfectly cast and remarkable in the role) in Max Schreck. Murnau believes that film technology can create a new world, a new reality—spoken of mostly in the abstract, and undoubtedly fueled by his own manias and drug addiction—and he is willing to enter a Faustian bargain with the unholy creature to produce his unauthorized adaptation of Dracula.
“Thank God—an end to this artifice!”
Shadow’s ideas about where fiction ends and reality begins—that those lines are blurred to the point of meaningless abstraction—is communicated in several ways. It recreates some shots from Nosferatu, reinterprets others, and goes so far as to place actual moments from the original film in insert. The production crew making Nosferatu never stop performing, as almost everyone behaves as if they are in a stage play even and especially when the camera is not rolling, with dramatic body language, movement, and line delivery. They are of course coming from the theater, as commercial film was in its infancy. The lines blur further when we remember that Bram Stoker himself was a theater man, and that his novel was written in a style influenced by the stage, in ways both direct and subtle. The art forms infect one another, calling into question the straight lines of creation and influence. The stage, the page, the film, the world—are these not one in the same? Murnau and the crew wear goggles and white lab coats, calling to mind the iconography of Frankenstein and mad scientist films as if they seek to harness the essential elements of life and creation for their ends.
Murnau’s obsession to create the ultimate symphony of horror brings him into conflict with his producer, writer, cinematographer, and of course Schreck himself, who is presented as a mirror image of Murnau. They both have a craven hunger, one that exploits others mercilessly, and is only satisfied for short periods of time before more sacrifice is required. The vampire acknowledges this dynamic directly, recognizing that they are characters in a dramatic context, even if Murnau, the professional artist, does not. Inevitably, the bodies pile up. People sacrifice for the art, or, rather, are sacrificed by Murnau to Schreck, or by Schreck for Murnau.
The vampire is not only Murnau’s double—he represents his future, too. He is a creature alone, hated, forgotten, whose past glories are lost to time, with only a trail of victims left in his wake. This is a dreadful fate to imply in the fiction of the film. In our world, however, Murnau fares much better, as his work is widely remembered, studied, and even revisited and revisioned in tribute.
It is during the film’s harrowing conclusion that the ideas of performance, purpose, and sacrifice blend into a synthetic neo-reality, where the movie-within-a-movie becomes the film we’re watching, and the vampire and Murnau finally come to an agreement of sorts, sacrificing much for art’s sake, their art an artifice revealed through the cracks in reality itself. Shadow of the Vampire's ideas about the real, the unreal, performance, and purpose has haunted me for decades. Project Vampire Killer—and a good deal of my other work, I suspect—simply would not be the same without it.