Cinema's love affair with its celluloid portrayal has become something of a parlour game for an industry obsessed with navel-gazing. From Sunset Boulevard to Gods And Monsters, it stares at itself in the mirror and sees fantastical tragedy, streaked with a deep black humour. The suspicion? Taking itself any more seriously would cause undue pain.
Shadow Of The Vampire plays to the cause, using whimsy to spiral off known facts about the production of Nosferatu into something more other-worldly. It's a conceit that risks side- tracking the narrative into top-heavy arthouse, but instead rewards with an unsettling mix of humour and horror.
The screen is taken by two howling turns. First comes John Malkovich as FW Murnau, shrouded in a lab coat for a clever play on the mad scientist schtick and forensically ordering his set like a biologist prodding a petri dish. It's an obvious coda: the obsessed film-maker as bloodsucker, draining the lifeforce from those around him.
But he has to tussle for attention with Willem Dafoe's Max Schreck - and there can only be one winner. At one juncture the latter spits: "This is hardly your picture" - and it shows. His features twisted beyond recognition, Dafoe is a greying, taut slug of snarls and gnarls, sneers and leers, grimaces and lipcurls. It's a delight of a turn that, yes, should carry him to an Oscar nom.
Succour also comes from the support: Eddie Izzard fogs memories of Circus et al with stagey mannerisms; Catherine McCormack shies away from the urban rom-com circuit with her haughty, narcotic-riddled demeanour; and Cary Elwes plays well in the kind of role (brash period charmer) he was born to. But it's the leads who glance into the mirror and see not the vampire's usual emptiness, but a pair of flawless performances, showered in nostalgia and pathos.
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Dafoe and Malkovich pull out the choke and drive headlong at each other, trailing black comic smoke in their wake. Director E Elias Merhige conjures up a dark delight that affords two heavyweight thesps a prize bout.