Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary

Until recently, only a very particular breed of film geek and devotees of the avant-garde, silent cinema, and the midnight movie circuit had ever heard of Winnipeg-based filmmaker Guy Maddin. He visited my experimental film class at BU five years ago (while in town for a retrospective of his work at the MFA) and showed his 1992 feature, Careful, a cautionary fable about an isolated, way Northern town where the slightest hint of noise would trigger a massive avalanche upon the order of Pompeii. It was his first film in color, although not full color (only two tints were used in every frame). The quirky dialogue was like nothing I’d ever heard, perhaps because it translated from English to Icelandic and back to English again.

In 2000, Maddin wowed many with a short he made for the Toronto International Film Festival called The Heart of The World. A homage to silent Russian and German Expressionist cinema (particularly the montage-centric work of Sergei Eisenstein), it careens at a breakneck pace, condensing enough characters, subplots, red herrings and plot twists to fill an epic into six frenzied minutes. Like much of Maddin’s work, it fixates on the effects and aesthetics of pre-sound cinema, only filtered through seventy-plus years of technological and artistic advancements. The basis for Maddin’s work may lie in another time, but he brings a decidedly modern sensibility to it in his rapid editing, home-bred surrealism, and a playfulness that renders it all unexpectedly, delightfully accessible.

Still, Maddin’s stuff is weird enough that he’ll likely never attract an audience that’s larger than micro-art house circuit-sized. This inevitably makes it difficult for him to find funding, so his latest feature is his fifth overall (in 15 years) and his first since 1997’s Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (which itself featured Shelly Duvall and Frank Gorshin!). Invited by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to film its stage production of Bram Stoker’s oft-told, oft-filmed horror tale, Maddin took his footage and ran wild with it, piling on the circa-1925 effects (iris-ins and outs, intertitles, superimpositions, one-color screen-tints) and focusing very little on the choreography (not entirely leaving it out), but keeping (and emphasizing) the production’s classical score. The results are like watching Nosferatu as a hallucinatory silent musical (is that an oxymoron?) with a more traditional screen vampire (the suave, striking Zhang Wei-Qiang) in place of a hideous creature like Max Schreck.

Actually, the Count gets comparably little screen time in this version; the real central figure here is Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle, as luminous and ghostly as any Maddin heroine). The production begins with and focuses on the middle of the tale as Dracula seduces Lucy (the journey of Jonathan Harker and his encounter with the Count appears midway through the film in a swift, truncated series of flashbacks). From there, plenty of melodramatic heartbreak and elegant, romantic dancing ensues. Maddin refashions the ballet to his taste so much that it renders the original production nearly unrecognizable. The Dracula legend and all its familiar references are present (from blood-sucking to stake-driving), but Maddin’s own little additions (like the FLESHPOTS! that seduce an imprisoned Harker at Dracula’s castle) and rearrangements make it all seem like you haven’t seen this story before (you certainly haven’t heard it told like this).

It’s difficult to sustain such brilliance for even 75 minutes, which is why The Heart of The World remains Maddin’s penultimate work. But with that shining exception, he’s rarely been as inspired or poetic or complete or as (and this is the key) moving as he is here. Maddin’s Dracula is the rare film that’s as innovative as it is seductive.