Vampires have dominated cinematic imagination to the point that Count Dracula has appeared in more films than any other fictional character but Sherlock Holmes. He’d have made it into a few more if not for red tape. Before shooting his heavily influential 1922 film Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau couldn’t secure the rights to Bram Stoker’s novel, so the German Expressionist director simply changed the names, presenting his blood-sucking fiend not as Dracula but as the ghoulish Count Orlok. Nevertheless, the film was ordered destroyed after Stoker’s litigious estate successfully sued, nearly depriving modern cinephiles of the undead count’s iconic, silhouetted ascent up the staircase. That’s a compelling enough backstory for a nearly lost masterpiece of early cinema, but at the dawn of the new millennium, director E. Elias Merhige and writer Steven Katz envisioned a far more sinister secret history of Murnau’s classic, one custom-made for a heavily made-up, crazy-eyed Willem Dafoe to slink around in the dark.

In Shadow of the Vampire’s fictionalized account of the making of Nosferatu, Max Schreck (Dafoe), the historically accurate name of the actor who portrayed Count Orlok, is introduced to Murnau’s cast and crew as a method actor who will only appear at night and in full costume and character. On location in Czechoslovakia, Schreck as Orlok terrifies the crew in his first appearance, stiffly emerging from a dark interior to greet the actor playing Thomas Hutter (Eddie Izzard). Meanwhile, townspeople agonize over the peril of removing crucifixes from the walls of the set, and soon, a mysterious affliction befalls the film’s cameraman (Ronan Vibert). As he groggily admits while hopped up on recreational sedatives, Murnau (John Malkovich) has actually hired a real-life vampire to play the part of an actor playing the part of a vampire. He didn’t find Schreck (or whatever his real name might be) in the German theater, as he first claimed, but instead actually discovered him lurking within this very castle.

Especially when viewed 20 years later, Dafoe as Schreck/Orlok can’t arrive on screen soon enough. Much of the film’s earlier moments are spent with a pretentious, verbose Malkovich (not even attempting a German accent) pontificating about the godlike mission of filmmaking. He’s almost as much a caricature of himself here as he was in Being John Malkovich one year prior. His Murnau asserts that “We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory, but our memory will neither blur nor fade,” and he claims that the cinema possesses “a context as certain as the grave.” It’s the kind of self-aggrandizing that the Academy tends to eat up, and indeed Shadow of the Vampire, despite its slim 92-minute runtime, does feel like Oscar-bait. (It would receive nominations for makeup and Dafoe’s supporting acting.) Just two years earlier, Shakespeare in Love pulled a Best Picture upset thanks to a comedic story about a fictional romance inspiring the Bard’s writing of Romeo and Juliet. Shadow of the Vampire feels cut from a similar cloth in this metafictional approach, swapping out the romance for dashes of horror in a formula that already struck awards-season gold.

As a horror film, however, it lacks much bite. Dafoe turns in a compelling performance as a fiendish vampire trying to relate to humanity, particularly in describing how he found Stoker’s book sad because he could identify with Dracula’s loneliness and inability to even remember how to perform such quotidian human actions as buying bread. Merhige’s attention to detail in emulating specific scenes from Nosferatu is laudable and technically impressive. But at the end of the day, this novelty of a film is little more than a self-important parlor trick. Smoke in mirrors that cast no reflection. Yet another movie about the grand enterprise of making movies, the likes of which have continued to suck the life out of many an awards season in the two decades since Shadow of the Vampire’s release.

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