Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary
directed by Guy Maddin
starring Zhang Wei-Qiang, Tara Birtwhistle, David Moroni
Everyone has their own personal interpretation of the Vampire story, and goodness knows it’s done to death. Still, unexplored interpretations emerge occasionally, like this combination of blood, ballet, and high concept film making. Out on the plains of Manitoba, director Guy Maddin teams with Mark Godden and the Winnipeg Royal Ballet to deliver this unusual film. Shot and printed to look like a recovered 1920 silent film, it’s eerily reminiscent of Un Chien Andalou, the notorious surrealist epic of the ’20s. While not hewing to the original vampire story too closely, this project takes a semi-serious, semi-silly attitude, producing a wildly entertaining epic that brings life back to the phrase “art film.”
Technically, the film is shot in a grainy digital style, copying the look and feel of a silent film rescued from rotting film stock and missing frames. Colors are black and white, with dramatic emphasis added when the colors change to sepia or rose. Occasional bits of blood red appear to emphasize action, emotion and impalement. The title sequence uses copious amounts of chocolate sauce, the old special effect for flowing blood. It drizzles across the face of the ingénue, and floods a map of Europe, threatening the homeland with exotic eastern invaders. When it touches eastern England, it also touches Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) and her three suitors. Girlish laughter devolves into blood red death as mysterious marks appear on her neck, pulling pallor from her face and cheating all her male admirers of her charms. In the background, mother survives in a surrealist ventilator — a Plexiglas covered bed with a rotating steam driven pump, her condition never explained. Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni) appears to diagnose Lucy, and grope her a bit as well — he’s not only a fanatical Vampire Hunter, but a dirty old man as well. Bless his heart!
After Lucy’s burial, John Harker (Johnny Wright) and crew take off the Transylvania, intent on garlicing Drac (Zhang Wei-Qiang) in his own house. At this point, things bog down in an overly long dance sequence between Nina (CindyMarie Small) and her fiancé, but eventually we get to the killing floor. Against a backdrop of coffins emerging from symbolic vaginas, Van Helsing and the boys drive a stake through the Count’s bowels, leaving him hanging in the air. And you thought dating was hard today.
The details define the devils, and casting Zhang Wei-Qiang as Dracula makes Dracula more sinister – not only are you dealing with the mystery of death, but the mystery of the orient as well. Lucy is provocative in her semi transparent gown as she flits and flirts about, but best of all is Van Helsing. He attacks Lucy’s breasts and legs with gusto that can only some from experience. Today you’d jail the guy, but 100 years ago you’d go to him for dating advice, and he’d supply it.
This first half of the film flies along — subtle and not so subtle wit appear in the dialog frames, and the dancing makes more sense in this story than most classical ballet pieces. Occasionally, we slip into dance for its own sake, and lose some of the impact of the film as a loving parody of the multiple genera it attacks. Despite this flaw, all elements of this odd film work together — the aged look of the film reflecting the age of the story, dance makes up for the static action that permeates the first half of the original book, and both are pulled together with sly humor indicating that nothing, not even ballet, should be taken all that seriously. Well-chosen music by Mahler captures the era, and adds one more high art attribute to the project. Yes, Virginia, this is a cultural multivitamin. Take once a month and you’ll be sparkling in conversation and insightful in discussions. Who knows? Maybe you coat will get shinier.
Zeitgeist Films: http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/