The movie works beautifully for long stretches. Its main problem (aside from some wonky historical moments) is its unevenness of tone. Certain deaths (well, murders) of innocents are treated lightly and even comically, as is the character of 'Max Schreck,' the actor who is really an ancient Eastern European vampire. But the climax of the film is pure horror that's undercut by the movie's earlier, lighter tone.
Still, Shadow of the Vampire is a delight in many ways, parts greater than the sum. Willem DaFoe and his make-up job command the screen whenever he's on it as 'Max Schreck.' And Dafoe plays the mix of low comedy and bleak horror better than anyone else in the cast. One doesn't feel sorry for him, but one does feel sorry for the state he's in. A brilliant monologue by 'Schreck' about the saddest scene in Bram Stoker's Dracula fixes the character in our minds as a character (a sad and awful one) and not a caricature.
The rest of the cast is also solid, especially John Malcovich as obsessed director F.W. Murnau and Udo Kier as Murnau's mournful assistant. Catherine McCormack's Greta is the most problematic of characters, treated as a vain, morphine-addicted punchline until suddenly... she's supposed to be a sympathetic subject of horror? Tonally, it doesn't work at all.
Writer Stephen Katz and director E. Elias Merhige have worked sporadically since this film, which is a shame. The movie looks great. And the writing, while tonally uneven, is interesting throughout. And Dafoe... what a performance! Recommended.