Steven Katz’s screenplay for “Shadow of the Vampire” is based on an absolutely brilliant conceit, namely that in making his wonderfully creepy 1922 version of the Dracula story, “Nosferatu,” the eccentric German director F.W. Murnau cast in the title role an actor, Max Schreck, who just might actually have been one of the undead. The working out of this premise, as it turns out, isn’t quite as dexterous as it might have been, and its resolution is a trifle muddled, but there’s so much that goes right in E. Elias Merhige’s picture that it easily becomes one of the year’s most watchable movies, particularly for film buffs.

We first encounter Murnau, played as an effete, intense, flamboyant, supremely confident (and, it eventually becomes clear) drug-addicted artist by John Malkovich, as he completes soundstage work on his vampire tale and gratefully exits for location shooting in Czechoslovakia. As the company departs for the rural village where the remainder of the picture will be filmed, Murnau announces to his cast and crew that Schreck, the man he’s chosen to play Count Orloff, is a method actor of such dedication that he will appear only in full makeup and never step out of character. Sure enough, as portrayed by Willem Dafoe, Schreck makes his entrance as the tall, bald apparition with devilish features and pale visage well-known from the original “Nosferatu,” and it’s not long before he begins to seem very menacing to his fellow performers, who don’t quite know how to take him, and disruptive to Murnau, who becomes increasingly distraught over his gruesome star’s lip-smacking interest in his colleagues and his refusal to follow orders. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal very much about how the plot proceeds, but the dialogue and situations are shot through with a joyous vein of morbid humor (at one point a thirsty Schreck remarks to Murnau that he doesn’t think they need the writer anymore, and the director replies glumly that while he hates to admit it, the scribe is still important), and as it turns out, Murnau has a plan to deal with the actor at the end of the day, as it were. Moreover, the picture keeps the audience guessing about whether Schreck is actually a blood-sucker in the Transylvanian sense, or perhaps a just slightly mad performer who’s immersed himself in the lore surrounding his character so fully that he can no longer tell the difference between fantasy and fact. (George Romero’s 1978 “Martin” toyed with a similar idea in amodern setting).

Much of the enjoyment in “Shadow of the Vampire” derives from the care with which Merhige has reconstructed the early filmmaking experience, and the precision with which he’s matched his recreation to Murnau’s original. He’s managed to reproduce images from the 1922 film with startling accuracy, so that when actual footage from “Nosferatu” is shown, there’s virtually no conflict with the new material. And, it should be noted, this punctiliousness isn’t merely a cheap way of showing off: it’s essential to an undercurrent which runs through the picture, comparing the making of a film to the act of the vampire in extracting the souls of those on whom he feeds. “The camera takes life,” it’s remarked at one point, setting up a clever analogy between filmmaking and vampirism. But the comparison isn’t hammered home so crudely as to become precious.

Moreover, as canny as Katz’s script and Merhige’s direction might be, they required a superlative cast to make the story work; and happily, they found one. Malkovich is his usual excellent self, putting his snobbish airs and gift for outbursts of rage to good use, and he’s ably seconded by Cary Elwes (as an over-the-top cameraman recruited when the first one, portrayed by Ronan Vibert, meets an untimely end), Udo Kier (as the producer who’s seen most everything), and John Aden Gillet (as the writer on whom Schreck casts his gaze). Eddie Izzard is exceptional as Gustav von Wangerheim, the conceited actor who plays against Schreck in “Nosferatu” (he’s the equivalent of the Jonathan Harker character in “Dracula”); it’s not easy to act bad convincingly, and Izzard pulls off the difficult task with a wonderful tongue-in-cheek air. Catherine McCormack is slightly less persuasive as the actress for whom Schreck has a particularly strong desire; her performance is a little too arch, and the fact that the script never clarifies the depth of Schreck’s interest even before seeing her is one of its weakest links.

The person who’s most responsible for the success of the venture, though, is Willem Dafoe, who’s simply magnificant as Schreck. One has to credit the makeup work of Katja Reinert as playing a big role in support of Dafoe, of course, but it’s the actor who’s mastered perfectly the sweeping, operatic essence of Schreck’s original performance and transferred it effortlessly to the actor’s off-screen words and actions too. This isn’t merely an impersonation; it’s a great performance, probably the best Dafoe’s ever given, and the way he relishes the part’s juicy humor (at one point he asks for makeup almost pleadingly) while maintaining a necessary sense of menace is simply extraordinary. But somehow he also manages to make the character oddly affecting, a truly remarkable feat.

“Shadow of the Vampire” does have weaknesses. Murnau disappears for a time in the middle of the story, and one of the plot’s centers is for a time missed. The opening title sequence, while beautifully conceived (a testimony to Merhige’s artistry and so reminiscent of the similarly powerful credits to David Cronenberg’s masterful “Dead Ringers” that it might even be a homage) goes on a very long while–it must represent a good 5% or more of the running-time. And, as has been mentioned, the denouement is a trifle confused, particularly when the action is compared to what actually appears onscreen in “Nosferatu” itself. So there are moments when the execution, both in the writing and the direction, doesn’t quite match the inspiration of the story: you find yourelf imagining if could have been just a little bit better, given the great concept it’s working from.

But these are relative quibbles. For every sequence that seems a bit limp there’s another that’s quite perfect (a nighttime conversation between Schreck, producer Albin Grau and writer Henrick Galeen, interrupted by a passing bat, couldn’t be better). “Shadow of the Vampire” combines the sort of dark humor that infused “Being John Malkovich” with the affection for cinematic history that marked “Gods and Monsters,” and while it’s not quite the equal of either, it’s good enough to merit a strong recommendation.

As a footnote, it should be noted that the picture comes, oddly enough, from the production company of Nicolas Cage, who gave one of his most outrageous and riveting performances as a man who thinks himself one of the undead in the absurdly underrated “Vampire’s Kiss” (1989). When one recalls his most recent turns in schlock like “Gone in Sixty Seconds” and “The Family Man,” you have to wonder whether it’s time for him to click on the phony fangs again, too.