JA from MNPP here. When I started rewatching E. Elias Merhige's 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire the other day for the umpteenth time I was convinced that we first see Willem Dafoe's Max Schreck is when he's first being filmed by Murnau & Company - when he emerges from his deep dark tunnel, aka the hole where Murnau says he found him. I was wrong. The first time we see Schreck is a few minutes earlier when Murnau leaves a caged mink sitting outside said hole as tasty bait and Schreck's hands - white as moles, fingers long and sharp as stalactites - appear in the background and snake their way around the bars, enveloping their innocent prey.
Now I'm not one to talk about how an actor uses their hands - it makes me feel like Guy Woodhouse telling Roman Castavet about that "kind of an... involuntary reach" - but Dafoe's performance demands it...
His hands, what he does with them, play an enormous role in what makes his take on the Nosferatu so special, and its telling that its their entrance first. Indeed we'll see this motif repeated several times (often in shots borrowed straight from Murnau's original film) - those fingers, so so very thin and long, are first only shadows, like the branches of a tree, which then move into frame, trembling ever so slightly with purpose, toward their intention.
They echo the fanning shadows of the film's art-deco opening credits - sharp and dark and at sinister angles, less like rays of sunlight pouring down from heaven than like light pouring up from under the dirt.
I'd say what sets Dafoe apart from the earlier classic incarnations that he's up against - the real Schreck, Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's film (and let's not forget to give a little love to Reggie Nalder in Salem's Lot) - is how funny he makes Max. Presumably taking his cues from the hilarious fang-in-cheek dialogue that writer Steven Katz gave him ("I feed like an old man pees - sometimes all at once, sometimes drop by drop."), Dafoe extends the comedy straight out to the nail-sharp tips of those limbs.
The way he cups his hand and rubs those fingernails together when thinking as if trying to start a fire; the dramatic posturing when flummoxed that's straight out of a Looney Tunes cartoon - he knows half his battle in freaking us out is done thanks to the look of him (in the contest of What's Scariest, you name fifty more elaborately designed horror movie monsters and I will just point to the Nosferatu and I will win) so he works on giving Max this entirely new yet entirely pitch-black angle, and with it Dafoe owns a role that might've made a lesser actor crumble.
That's not to say Schreck's a buffoon - when it comes time to scare, watch out. The head tilts back, the eyes bulge outward and up, and a smile - a crazed drooling rat-fanged grimace of wild glee - gets the job done and then some.