Monday, December 8, 2008

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002)

Director: Guy Maddin
Country: Canada

With all of the recent hubub over Stephenie Meyer, her teen- and tween-based Twilight book series and the recently released Twilight movie, it's safe to say that vampires are "in" again. However, because of the Mormon author's drastic makeover of classic vampire lore (No fangs? Crosses don't work? Neither does sunlight? Or holy water? Or garlic?!), it's a strange time to be a fan of classic, Gothic vampire fiction - you know, the real stuff. Nosferatu, Bram Stoker, Carl Th. Dreyer's Vampyr - mention any of those crucial cultural keystones of vampire culture to a Twi-hard (as some of the Meyer fanatics like to call themselves), and you'd probably get a look as if broccoli had just sprouted out of your ears before she starts gushing about Edward Cullen all over again.

Fortunately, there's an alternative to this depressing picture: Canada's own Guy Maddin has a solid antidote ready with Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, a film that offers much comfort and contentment in the original way it re-tells Stoker's highly influential vampire story. Based on a Royal Winnipeg Ballet production by Mark Godden, the film unfolds in the silent film style of the 1920s and '30s that Maddin uses so often combined with choreographed dance sequences. It's a brave venture, but a well-executed and ultimately memorable one.

Right away, one can't help but be drawn into Maddin's scatterbrained imagination as it gives the classic Dracula tale a unique makeover. This is pretty evident in the film's opening, which focuses not on Jonathan Harker, as the book and most film adaptations do, but instead Lucy, best friend to Harker's fiancée, Mina. Even before she encounters the Count, she has to contend with three proud and slightly bufoonish suitors and her mother, who is encased in a glass coffin, incessantly rings a bell for her daughter and is connected to a huge, whirring ventilator. As closely as it follows the original story, this Dracula is filled with the kinds of phobias and quirks that Maddin continually returns to in his films, including a sense of terror and naive curiosity surrounding sex.

The splendid music and accompanying dance sequences add a new dimension of non-verbal storytelling for Maddin to play with and are quite enjoyable. It's true that one doesn't think of ballet right away when the words "Dracula" or "vampire" are mentioned, but here, it oddly suits the material quite well and gives a refreshing spin on the familiar story (not to mention that, considering the equally Gothic Phantom of the Opera and its legendary success on Broadway, perhaps it isn't such an unlikely match after all). The Gustav Mahler score is far more satisfying than the flat, tinny soundtracks usually put together for silent film DVD releases, and the ballet sequences beautifully illustrate such scenes as the suitors' courtship of Lucy, her nightmare in which winged gargoyles dance around her bed, Dracula's seduction of both her and Mina and Van Helsing's climactic quest to find and kill the vampire.

As part of his style, Maddin combines the exaggerated conventions of silent cinema with his own over-the-top sense of humor with great comedic results. When Dr. Van Helsing prescribes protection against the visiting vampyr, Lucy's maids and suitors surround her room and sleeping body with mounds of garlic. At one point, the insane asylum-bound Renfield (servant of Dracula and eater of bugs) chomps on a guard's arm and draws a mouthful of glistening black blood, eyes rolling madly as he does so. The quaint dialogue of silent cinema is amusingly reproduced in such chuckle-worthy lines as "The blood of a brave man is the best thing for a woman in trouble," and the essence of silent-era melodrama is reproduced in spades through the actors' bulging eyes and diverse array of facial expressions.

Maddin's Dracula is essentially a silent film itself, as it contains no audible dialogue, but it could never be mistaken for a film from Murnau or Dreyer. Like the works of those directors, Dracula mainly uses well-framed black-and-white photography mixed with some color filters, but unlike them, Maddin indulges in various other effects available to him, including Super 8 photography, sparsely-used sound effects and colored highlights within the monochrome images. In a way, this allows Maddin to have his cake and eat it too, giving him a means of continuing his love affair with silent film while making good use of more recent techniques.

As with most, if not all, of Maddin's films, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary is not for everyone. However, for fans of vampire fiction who are tired of the same old, uninspired re-hashings of the Dracula myth, this great little flick might be just the ticket you were looking for.


Bob Turnbull said...

What a glorious film this is...I didn't much care for Maddin's "The Saddest Music In The World" or "Tales From The Gimli Hospital", but this is an incredible marriage of Maddin's silent film recreations, the vampire mythology and some great visual touches.

It made me curious about Maddin's work again. I hope to get to "My Winnipeg" at some point.

Marc Saint-Cyr said...

I enjoyed The Saddest Music in the World, but I think I like this one a bit more. I'm also really curious about My Winnipeg.