Thursday, August 29, 2013

Judge a Movie by its Title: Shadow of the Vampire (2000): An Art Deco Tribute to a Gothic Story

Anyone who knows me knows that I will not watch horror movies. But I also will never refuse I request without a good reason. So, when a recent reader requested a post about the title sequence in the semi-recent horror film Shadow of the Vampire- it was an offer I couldn't refuse. So, while I almost never do I post about a film I've never seen, I'm going to break my rules because after I saw the title sequence I realized I was watching a small masterpiece in action.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
I know that seems like strong words from me, but I was just so impressed by the title sequence which seemed misplaced in a horror film, or at least the stereotypical, average horror film. Like I said, I haven't seen Shadow of the Vampire yet, but I most certainly will- if only to watch the title sequence again. Of course, I'd have to first watch the Nosferatu, the classic silent horror film, on which Shadow was based. From Wikipedia, I found that Shadow of the Vampire is loosely based on the filming of Nosferatu. John Malkovich stars as F.W. Murnau, the legendary German director, and William Dafoe stars as his eccentric star Max. The production team has all been told that Max is simply a devoted method actor who stays in character the whole time, when in reality Murnau- portrayed as the mad artist- has made the a deal with a devil- hiring a real vampire to be his star. Obviously, issues arise.

The opening three images focus gradually to the intricate design
 in the middle of the door
Let me note again that Shadow is very loosely based on reality. Max Schreck was a mildly famous actor who went on to star in a number of other films and plays, and Murnau was certainly not insane. However, it is a fascinating concept for a movie and an interesting glimpse into the making of a silent picture.

An instance of the interlocking Gothic designs that appear throughout
But we're here to talk about the title sequence. Earlier I noted how impressed I was by the title sequence and I was actually surprised that besides a few other people, Shadow of the Vampire's title sequence receives very little internet presence. I'm hoping to resolve that. If you haven't noticed already, I'm posting pictures of the title sequence. Except for the first, I'm putting the stills in chronological order so you can get an idea of the actual piece together.

Note the design, which certainly appears to be some sort of evil eye-
it is most prominent when Dafoe's name appears, as he plays the villain.
First, as I always try to do, I'll explain the piece which contains all the hallmarks for a good title sequence. The titles are placed over a series of fading in and out images reminiscent of a medieval tapestry. In this way, the film begins to explore the themes of the film. The images are certainly Gothic in appearance, bringing to mind the Gothic settings of Dracula and other vampire and horror films. The images also appear in a type of sepia tone which obviously pays homage to the era of silent film. The title sequence is actually filled with all different types of homages to the silent era, especially to the lost art of the title cards which would appear in the film. For instance, the camera zooms and pans in a manner which immediately reminded me of early movie making. A more obvious instance of this type of homage are the Art Deco-esque series of lines and designs that appear throughout the piece. This inclusion of Art Deco elements obviously is a reminder of the time of silent film, the 1920s.

Examples of the beautiful Gothic-inspired frightening designs
There is certainly an element of beauty in these images. Many are intricate and delicate. But at the same time, some are almost terrifying. I'm not exactly caught up on my Gothic imagery, but I'm almost sure some of the symbols, faces and masks that appear throughout represent evil, even perhaps the Devil. But... like I said, some are also beautiful. Pictures of knights and horsemen people the images; delicate arabesques, intertwining designs all fill the screen. It is a mystifying piece, one which repels and attracts.

More Gothic imagery

Which is, of course, the whole point of a title sequence, especially a title sequence for a more serious, or even frightening film. The title sequence, which is accompanied by a haunting score, helps set the horror tone of the film. At the same time, the sequence also draws viewers into the haunting mystery of the film to come.

The Art Deco homage is clear

I'm almost reminded of Saul Bass's title sequence for Vertigo. With its beautiful, but mysterious swirls, Vertigo's sequence is by all counts eerie, but at the same time it is strangely beautiful. Not of course, that I'm comparing the designer of Shadow's title sequence, a seemingly equal mysterious John Goodinson to Saul Bass, but he certainly masterfully applies the same techniques.

The end result is altogether unsettling, but altogether appropriate. There is no doubt that any semi-conscious viewer will realize a few things. First, the film will pay homage to the Art Deco days of silent cinema. At the same time, they realize it will be a dark mystery- eerie by intriguing- and most definitely horrifying. And if any title sequence, no matter when it was produced, can achieve that result is a small masterpiece of its own accord. I can't speak for the film- yet- but I can say that if the film is anything like its opening titles- it is worth your time.

By the way, in case any of my more classically-inclined readers were wondering, I will be concentrating on more classics in the near future. I realize I've covered more modern films in the last couple weeks, but I promise classics soon- no fear!


  1. Thank you so much dear Art-of-Film, for this fine opening shot on the mysterious and menacing title credits of "Shadow of the Vampire"! The captures you showed us brought to mind the hidden, devouring nature of the predator world-- terrifying indeed! All those watching eyes and hungry mouths, complete with knives, fangs, daggers and sharp points of all kinds, concealed within the mosaic-like, kaleidoscopic designs.
    The brooding, self-consuming over-think modality of the mirror-mosaic is a fitting medium indeed for this brooding, self-consuming movie.
    Can't wait till you see the movie, and hopefully, perform your cool riff on it as only you, Art-of-Film can!
    Thanks again!!

    1. Thanks so much for your lovely comment!! It's great to know that people are actually reading and enjoying the blog- it makes it all seem worthwhile! I hope you can follow "the art of film" and let me know if you have any suggestions for a post. I'm also open to hearing new ideas.
      Dan M.
      "The Art of Film"

  2. Cool! I certainly will.
    And thanks for the great blog, all your hard work is greatly appreciated.

  3. Dear Art of Film: I'm not a horror fan either, but I found "Shadow of the Vampire" to be much more of a movie "biopic," and very little of the horror genre, so I really don't think you'll have a problem with it. Indeed, once I had seen the opening title sequence I couldn't get my mind off of it during the movie, and finally had to track it down online a few days later. It was delightful to find your mention of it in this recent blog post. It deserves the appreciation you've shown for it, because it was so striking: beautiful and yet mysterious, haunting and yet fascinating. Thank you so much for blogging about it, it was great to know that other movie followers found it intriguing as well.

    1. I'm so glad that you enjoy the post- and I'll trust you that I wouldn't be scared out of my mind when I watch the film! I think I'm going to try to watch Nosferatu first, so I can try to appreciate it more. I'll have a classic Halloween movie-thon!
      I really appreciate your feedback. I hope you'll follow the blog and continue reading. Do you have any suggestions/feedback you'd like to offer. I'm always looking for new stuff!

  4. I've been trying to revisit this scene for years! The only time I saw the film was directly after it came out, and I was still a kid. I don't remember much of the rest of the film, but I remember this opening credits scene absolutely unnerved me, and I had always wondered if anyone else had recognized its simple brilliance.
    I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere else, but it always stuck with me through the years. Those eyes...
    Glad I found this article.


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