New Movies -
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Old Movies -
Touki Bouki: The Journey of the Hyena
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry
Recap: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 , 2005, 2006, 2007 , 2008 , 2009 , 2010 , 2011 , 2012
Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (Guy Maddin) 2002
For its scant 75-minute running time, Guy Maddin’s oddly surreal ballet film Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary transports the viewer into an alternate cinematic world where silent melodramas are still thriving. It's a cult classic waiting to happen. Despite the dancing, Maddin gives us what’s actually a fairly faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel in incident, if not tone. Though the Count has a suitably prominent role, the greatest terror seems at first to emanate not from his status as one of the undead, but instead from his status as an Eastern European immigrant. In the opening moments of the film, as the Count journeys to London, the intertitles panic, “Others from other lands!” and “From the east!” As a trickle of blood moves across a map, Indiana Jones-style to illustrate Dracula’s progress, though, the movie settles on another form of anxiety. When the intertitles shout “Coming!” they suddenly shift the focus of the movie onto the repressed sexuality of the virginal young Lucy. Suddenly the Count’s foreign roots (stressed by the casting of an Asian man in the role) make him seem wildly exotic when compared to Lucy’s three strapping suitors.
The first movement of Dracula explores Lucy’s corruption and eventual slide into the dark side with style. Maddin revels in the repressed Victorian sexuality and melodrama inherent in the story. Set to Mahler’s first two symphonies, the score underscores and exaggerates these themes. The ballet itself is relatively expressive, I suppose, but I don’t feel justified to really judge the dancing. The moment that had the most impact to my untrained eyes was a comic one when the vampiric Lucy tiptoed hurriedly backward after Van Helsing whips a cross out. Maddin seems rather uninterested in the dance anyway, and half the time he pumps enough fog into his sets that you can barely see the dancers’ feet. Most of the audience’s connection with the dancers comes not from their expressive movements, but instead from the frequent close-ups that Maddin employs. Perhaps the most impressive thing though about the integration of the ballet is how easy it is to accept it though. Maddin creates an environment where the theatrical nature of the ballet only adds to the atmosphere. Nearly everything conspires to distance the viewer a little bit from the action, so we get to a place where the audience questioning the film’s reality. The movie’s shot in black and white (with vivid flashes of color, especially whenever crimson blood flows), and has no spoken dialogue (to call it a silent film is a misnomer – there are frequent and conspicuous sound effects). There’s Vaseline smeared on the lens to create a dreamy atmosphere and the set design recalls German expressionism with nary a right angle in sight. The cumulative effect of these small elements makes the audience willing to accept nearly anything that Maddin throws at them.
Maddin only occasionally betrays that trust. The hyperkinetic style of filmmaking that Maddin employs might confound some. While I admit freely that it’s an acquired taste, I didn’t mind much when it allowed him to integrate a Heart of the World-style summation of Jonathan Harker’s back-story. This sort of narrative compression keeps things focused on the ballet and is infinitely preferable to the expository scenes that featured Keanu Reeves in Coppola’s adaptation of the novel. A more dubious decision by the director is his frequent infusion of irreverent humor into the story. Admittedly, there is something inherently hilarious about the sexual and religious hang-ups in the source material, but Maddin might overplay it. He turns the novel’s spiritual overtones into a massive joke, and while might not be the most enlightening treatment possible, it’s probably the most entertaining. Maddin presents the carnal impulses of his characters as something grotesque which makes it tough to take any of the characters seriously, since you don’t get the impression that he really does. Instead of a frenzied madness that springs about due to their repression, the characters often feel as if their lunacy is only there because the movie wants them to be weirder. Mina’s downright randy and Van Helsing is a lecherous old pervert (the last shot shows him sniffing some stolen panties). Just because the director is as interested in sending this material up as adhering faithfully to it is no reason to stay away, however. There’s as much imagination in this 75 minutes as in any previous vampire film, and several shots have a giddying effect (my personal favorite was the gruesome shadow play of Lucy the vampire gobbling up an infant). Maddin’s Dracula will entrance you with its first few flickering frames and then hold you there spellbound until its climatic dance of death.
* * * 1/2