Perhaps it is no coincidence that “schreck” means terror in German. With this conjecture at its foundation, E. Elias Merhige’s “Shadow of the Vampire” explores the identity of Max Schreck, who portrayed the big screen’s first Count Dracula in 1922, inspiring terror in audiences. Many moviegoers speculated — as Merhige does in his film — that Schreck inspired terror not because he was a talented actor, but rather because he was actually a vampire. Willem Dafoe’s eerie performance as the undead Schreck makes writer Steven Katz’s fantastical musing into a fascinating possibility, driving the film and providing cinephiles with several bits of trivia and artistic meditations.

After failing to gain the movie rights to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” director F.W. Murnau (a flamboyant John Malkovich) decides to film the story anyway, merely changing the vampire’s name to Count Orlok and the film’s title to “Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror.” Aiming for no less than immortality, Murnau endeavors to create a completely realistic film. His ambition leads him and his disgruntled cast and crew to shoot on location in the German countryside, complete with actual villagers as extras.

The deliberately hokey set is the stuff that horror movies are made of: a dark, musty castle atop a lone hill, impossibly high-arched ceilings and the requisite undead tenant. Murnau quickly explains to his curious crew that Max Schreck, the actor playing Count Orlok, is a Method-type actor, which is why he is constantly in character. The crosses and garlic villagers hang in their rooms and the occasional, inexplicable bottles of blood perturb the crew as filming begins. Their first glimpse of Schreck — combined with the disappearance of many crew members, an actual happening on the “Nosferatu” set — gets the crew understandably worried.

Dafoe enters in full costume and grotesque make-up, with long fingernails (which he enjoys clicking together in anticipation of a feeding) and bulging eyes. He’s no “Angel” — or even Lestat. He trades the leather trench coats of the Warner Brothers antihero for a long, black robe and the luscious locks of the Anne Rice character for a bald, age-spotted head.

This superficial deviation from cliches is merely the beginning. Dafoe, like Murnau decades before him, does not limit Schreck to horror movie convention. He is darkly funny at first — manically gesturing at actress Greta Schroder (Catherine McCormack) and her “beautiful bosom.” Only minutes later he is lunging for a drop of his co-star’s blood (the hilarious English comedian Eddie Izzard). Throughout, Dafoe is suffering instead of rebelling, surviving instead of feasting.

The range of Dafoe’s ability is what gives depth to “Shadow of the Vampire.” His transformation is so thorough it makes one wonder whether, years from now, another film will speculate if Dafoe was actually a vampire. He puts equal passion into lamenting the fate of Bram Stoker’s count as he does to capturing a bird mid-flight and drinking its blood. He is at once pitiful and petrifying. In his final scene, he is brooding and perverse, violent and sensual. The slightest twitches combine with the most melodramatic gestures, capturing an essential element of the silent film era.

The well-rounded cast represents silent film archetypes. Malkovich is a domineering relentless director, and no sacrifice is too great for his vision of cinematic realism. The real Murnau pursued a similar goal, employing striking lighting and camera angles that heightened tension, making the oft-exaggerated emotions of silent film seem purposeful. Merhige picks up these elements, precisely recreating particular scenes and inserting them — in all their black-and-white glory — directly into the film while adding original flourishes, including a montage set against a blood red sun.

Malkovich recreates Murnau right down to the goggles and lab coat that the famed director wore while filming “Nosferatu” in 1922. He treats his project as a work of artistry but also as a scientific piece, or a chillingly realistic documentary. He obsesses about his actors’ ability to match the film’s realism (“They don’t need to act. They need to be.”) while clashing with his ghoulish star. The tension between Dafoe and Malkovich — both hungry for power — escalates alongside the sense of realism, and both combust in a fantastical climax.

Izzard and McCormack also capture the passion of early Hollywood. Orlok’s cavernous castle is still too small for their egos. The constant feuding adds another element of tension to the film. Izzard is upset with Schreck’s quirks, while McCormack (currently featured in “Spy Kids” and “The Tailor of Panama”) is brazen and decadent as the drug-addicted heroine.

Merhige and Katz build on the mystery surrounding one of the greatest silent-era films. The haunting fame of “Nosferatu” and its terrifying star, Max Schreck, give “Shadow of the Vampire” a sturdy foundation and a predetermined place in the hearts of moviegoers. Merhiage preserves enough of Murnau’s techniques to keep film buffs’ eyes glued to the screen, while adding original elements and slightly tinkering with history. Dafoe is flawless, refusing to give his character human emotion or gothic glamour, but nonetheless remaining empathetic and fearsome. Film buffs and casual moviegoers alike can sink their teeth into “Shadow of the Vampire.”