Zeitgeist Films // 2002 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // May 18th, 2004
"We have all been vampyr-hunters at one time, either as jealous children or love-drunk suitors." -- Guy Maddin
In this extravaganza originally made for Canadian television, director Guy Maddin takes the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's production of Dracula as a launching point for an innovative take on Bram Stoker's novel. A silent film shot in black and white, using dance and old-fashioned title cards to tell the story, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary is a hallucinatory rhapsody on the familiar theme.
Victorian England, that bastion of strong men and saintly women, is invaded by a new foreign threat: a vampire named Dracula. When he sinks his fangs into sweet Lucy Westenra, she withers and dies, only to return from the grave as a ravening, lustful predator -- to the horror of her suitors and vampire expert Dr. Van Helsing. What else can they do but plunge a pike through her chest and cut off her head with a shovel? But then the vampire casts his wicked eye on the pure Mina, and the intrepid band of heroes must come to the aid of her fiancé, Jonathan, to preserve her virtue at any cost.
Prepare yourself: This movie is unlike any other Dracula film you have ever seen. It's probably unlike any movie you have ever seen.
The plot, you will have observed, is nothing new, but the interpretation is. Guy Maddin's film feels like a newly discovered treasure from the silent era, but without the tiresome need for explication that usually bogs down vampire movies. The film gains momentum and avoids staleness by assuming that the viewer is already familiar with Dracula's modus operandi and that of his nemesis, Van Helsing. There are no long speeches about Dracula's powers and origins, no pseudo-scientific lectures about the properties of garlic and crucifixes to drag down the action. Distilled down to just a few powerful scenes, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary is all about the emotional impact of the vampire's invasion. Dialogue-free except for some sparse use of title cards (many of which quote Stoker's novel directly), the film takes us back to the days of the greatest silent films.
Beginning in a mad rush, as if impatient to dazzle us, the opening scenes immediately establish the film's distinctive, haunting look. Maddin lavishes every possible visual manipulation on his Dracula to evoke both silent films and gothic excess: Vaseline-smeared lenses, artful scratches and "skips" in the film, circular framing, alteration of film speed, overexposed whites, double exposure, color washes and selective color highlighting (most noticeably with the color red), combinations of different film stocks, and probably many more techniques that I was unaware of as I was being swept along by the sheer spectacle. The effect is both lush and dreamlike, especially in combination with the use of dance to tell the story. Some scenes, such as Dracula and Lucy's dance in a graveyard amid falling snow, are achingly beautiful; others become nightmarishly stylized, as when winged gargoyles dance around Lucy's bed. Some images are almost abstract, like Dracula's stronghold, a swirling organic mass of sexualized curves and openings, a kind of fever-dream landscape of the female body (which the men invade, of course, bearing very long stakes). The grainy, deliberately aged texture of the film works with the use of pantomime as a constant reminder that we are watching a film, not real life, and frees both audience and filmmaker from the constraints of realism.
The heightened emotionalism of the film is expressed perfectly through the ballet (and vice versa). By nature, dance means performing in a way that uses the whole body to evoke emotion, so that, as Maddin himself observes with delight on his commentary, a dancer acts not just with the face but with every part of the body, even to the knotting of back muscles. Except for Brent Neale as Renfield, the cast is composed entirely of dancers, yet they take to silent film acting like naturals. Tara Birtwhistle's fully committed, ferocious glee as the vampire Lucy reminded me of Brigitte Helm as the evil Maria/Hel in Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece Metropolis; both actresses hold nothing back in the physicality of their performances. Birtwhistle and CindyMarie Small, as the doe-eyed Mina, have beautifully expressive faces to go with their expressive dancing, and Maddin takes full advantage of this with close-ups. If the idea of ballet makes you envision men in tights twirling women in tutus to the strains of Swan Lake, fear not: The choreography by Mark Godden is athletic, modern, and inventive, not at all stuffy or staid, and there isn't a pair of tights to be seen.
As Dracula, Asian dancer Zhang Wei-Qiang brings -- dare I say it? -- fresh blood to the familiar character. Wei-Qiang stands out dramatically in the midst of the otherwise white cast, and this brilliant casting stroke brings home to us the significance of the fact that Stoker's Dracula is a foreigner. Indeed, his foreignness is fundamental to Stoker's image of him: An alien, raised away from "civilization," the Count is by nature untrustworthy, alarming, Other. Another fresh and effective choice in Maddin's approach to this familiar figure is having Dracula speak not at all -- not even in title cards -- so that he retains an enigmatic, unknowable quality. It's particularly effective since it allows the characters to see in him what they expect or wish to see: a sexy demon lover, or a demon pure (or impure) and simple.
At first glance this Dracula, with his traditional opera cape and tousled dark hair, may seem like yet another version of the romantic underdog made famous in Frank Langella's film performance. But although this Dracula is sensual, young, and handsome, he isn't pining for a lost love, or any such sentimental baloney. Wei-Qiang creates a character who appears by turns threatening, pensive, lustful, and calculating -- and ultimately all the more haunting because we can only intuit or infer his motives. Just as Stoker's Dracula gains in impact by being offstage through a great deal of the book, Wei-Qiang's Dracula generates suspense by not becoming too familiar. Indeed, Dracula here is almost more of a catalyst than a character in his own right, and this interpretation forces us to focus on the ways the human characters react to him -- with longing, with fear, with jealousy -- and to see how quickly purportedly civilized people are reduced to animals squabbling over territory and mates.
The cast is also enhanced by an energetic, wild-eyed Renfield, who is cruelly used by the "heroes" to provide information about his master, and by David Moroni as Dr. Van Helsing. Despite his name, this Van Helsing is veddy British and seems to stand for all the supposed virtues of civilized society -- which will crumble at a touch to reveal insecurity, prurience, and, err, stake envy. Crisply businesslike on the surface even as he subjects Lucy to a humiliatingly intimate medical examination, he is nevertheless far too interested in the sexual shenanigans of the vampire and his women (that's him with the opera glasses, watching from the bushes during Lucy and Dracula's pas de deux). His self-satisfied smirk after beheading Lucy is both hilarious and chilling in its misplaced machismo. Likewise, Lucy's suitors show a little too much zeal in "pumping" their blood into her depleted veins, then chase after her with pikes when she is no longer the passive recipient of their fluids. Doing one's duty to protect England from bad blood becomes a kind of yardstick of masculinity. As Mina's clueless fiancé, Johnny Wright gets to dally with Dracula's brides in a far too rushed flashback sequence, but then he immediately reclaims the mantle of sexual purity and conventionality.
Enhancing the feverish emotion of the visuals, the music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) adds considerably to the film's impact. Traditional enough to sound right for a film that reaches into the past for its style, yet dramatic and varied enough to lend real power to the action, the selections from Mahler's first and second symphonies are an excellent choice to heighten the experience of the film, as every good silent film score should. Only in a few places does the music seem to clash with the mood of a scene, generally during the moments when Mahler's music becomes, in Maddin's humorous term, "Olympic" -- brassily triumphal. Alas, the more vigorous passages often drown out Guy Maddin during his audio commentary track, which (when audible) is an enjoyable scrapbook of memories, anecdotes, tributes, and random whimsy, such as when he discusses his affection for the word "cuckold" or applauds the shapeliness of Small's neck -- "it's like a leg!" His commentary also illuminates his ideas about the real subject of the film -- fear -- and who the virgin of the title may be (you'll be surprised).
Other extras include a handsome still gallery of all black-and-white images, a four-minute television spot that goes behind the scenes during filming, two audio interviews, and an enjoyable nine-minute montage of set models, sets under construction, and raw dance footage that shows off the completed sets. The whimsical quality that underlies the swooning gothicism of the film becomes more clearly evident in these extras, which adds another level of enjoyment. The case insert also features liner notes by Maddin, liberally sprinkled with exclamation points, that convey the excitement and enthusiasm he brought to the film.
Maddin notes on more than one occasion that he believes his film to be truer to Stoker's novel than any other. However, Maddin's film is in fact an interpretation of the novel that reads against some of Stoker's intentions. I think Stoker would be shocked to see his band of plucky heroes, out to save England and civilization, depicted as "jealous boys" (Maddin's term for them). Likewise, the xenophobia and sexual prudery that underlay Stoker's value system were probably unconscious on his part, whereas they are paraded around to be the subject of derision in this film. Stoker wanted us to be revolted by the sexualizing of pure English womanhood, to see their corruption as striking at the foundation of English life and, by extension, civilized society. Maddin presents a Dracula who is practically summoned up by the women he visits as a response to the desires they already harbor. Stoker would never have envisioned his pure, Madonna-like Mina attempting to pleasure her fiancé with the techniques she knew the vampire women had employed on him.
What Maddin gives us, instead of Stoker's conception of Dracula, is a perceptive reading of the context in which Stoker's novel was written. It's clear from Maddin's language -- his frequent use of the term "Other," his discussion of economic and xenophobic themes -- that he has done considerable homework; his film is steeped in familiarity with literary criticism of Stoker's novel. It's definitely an informed and intelligent interpretation of the novel, but viewers who think that they are seeing here what Stoker intended should be aware that this is far from the case. However, I think Maddin's commentary on Stoker's assumptions and value system is both smart and illuminating, and those who don't mind a bit of irreverence toward what, after all, was written as a straight-up adventure yarn should get a kick out of seeing Stoker's own demons trotted out into the daylight. After all, over a century after Stoker's time it's difficult, if not impossible, for us to read his novel without irony and, in particular, without a post-Freudian awareness of what all those long stakes really mean. Even if he didn't know it himself, Stoker let a lot of cultural and sexual anxieties surface in his book, and the way they continue to resonate has a great deal to do with the continued popularity of his work. In a way, Maddin understands Stoker's novel much better than Stoker probably did himself.
More a fantasia on the theme of Dracula than a filmed version of the novel, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary is a wild, beautiful ride. Certainly it's not for all tastes; I wouldn't recommend it for viewers without at least some appreciation of dance. Its melodramatic elements will undoubtedly strike some viewers as being over the top, even while they will delight others, and I did find some elements of the story bewildering. If the premise attracts you at all, though, you owe yourself a rental at least. You won't find anything this audacious, creative, and delirious at the local multiplex.
As I watched it I felt that it would make an excellent complement to the 1931 Bela Lugosi film: Both use moody black-and-white photography and stylized performance elements, and both condense the expansive novel down to a few key, almost archetypal confrontations. Yet where Tod Browning's classic film is stately in pace and dialogue-heavy (as befits its origins as a stage play), Guy Maddin's is all swirling motion with almost no verbiage at all. I think it's fair to say that Maddin's film could not exist without the Lugosi version, even though in many ways it is such a different creature. If the Tod Browning film were a person, Pages from a Virgin's Diary might be what that person would dream on a hot night after an absinthe binge.
As a force of nature, the Count is beyond the jurisdiction of this court. To rule on his guilt or innocence would be an act of sheer audacity. All charges are dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2004 Amanda DeWees; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Music Only)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Behind the Scenes" Television Spot
* "Making the Sets" Featurette
* Commentary by Director Guy Maddin
* Audio Interview with Director Guy Maddin
* Audio Interview with Producer Vonnie Von Helmolt
* Stills Gallery