I was talking to a friend recently about the appeal of old horror movies. My friend posited the theory that the reason classic horror is better than the newer stuff is because "people were creepier back then." He even had some numbers to back up his claim, so it must be true: He said that anyone who existed before 1950 is scarier than people who came after (for my part, his theory certainly holds true in regards to my ex-wife's parents!!!!). I dunno how much I buy any of his theories about movies or people, but I can think of one horror movie actor whose otherworldly mystery and creepiness are impossible to imagine in a more modern setting: Nosferatu's Max Schreck.
Schreck's work in 1922's Nosferatu is so convincing (and his modern-day visibility in other roles so virtually nonexistent), that his performance gave birth to several urban legends among horror movie fans - the most interesting one being that he was actually a vampire. That's the hook behind Shadow of the Vampire, and as hooks go, it's a pretty solid one.
Because of the premise of an alternative making-of story of Nosferatu in which an overzealous FW Murnau employs an actual vampire to make his vampire movie, I'd long expected Shadow to be a broad (but dark) comedy, like something the Coen brothers or Charlie Kaufman would come up with. Instead, once I finally watched Shadow of the Vampire I discovered that the whole thing is played relatively straight, with John Malkovich's Murnau a very convincing picture of artistic genius turning into madness. The other highlight of the cast is Willem Dafoe as Schreck, who pretty much acts exactly as you would imagine Count Orlock would when he's not on camera. Eddie Izzard also does a pretty hilarious job capturing the overblown emotions and broad mugging that characterize most silent movie acting.
Despite the humorous touches, I found the climax of the film, in which Murnau and his crew attempt to finally do away with the vampire (but not without capturing his movie's climax on camera first, even if it means sacrificing his leading lady) genuinely disturbing. Murnau ends up being a deranged almost Manson-like figure, throwing his cast and crew to the wolves (or wolf, as it were) just so he can make a great movie. Although....given that it's Nosferatu we're talking about, maybe it would have been worth it?