Dracula - Pages from a Virgin's Diary
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After garnering widespread acclaim with his mini-masterpiece THE HEART OF THE WORLD, red hot cult auteur Guy Maddin (THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD) has taken on the worlds most adapted horror tale and concocted his most original and ravishingly stylized cinematic creation yet. Beautifully transposing the Royal Winnipeg Ballets interpretation of Bram Stokers classic vampire yarn from stage to screen, Maddin has forged a sumptuous, erotically charged feast of dance, drama and silent film techniques. The black-and-white, blood-red-punctured DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGINS DIARY is a Gothic grand guignol of the notorious Count and his bodice-ripped victims, fringed with the expressionistic strains of Gustav Mahler.
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For those familiar with the novel or the various film versions of "Dracula" that have tried to stay in the vicinity of Stoker's original text, the story picks up in England with Lucy Westernra (Tara Birthwhistle) trying to pick between her three suitors, Dr. Jack Seward (Matthew Johnson), Arthur Holmwood (Stephane Leonard), and Quincy Morris (Keir Knight), not to mention creepy bug-eating Renfield (Brent Neale). When Lucy falls prey to the vampire's curse, Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni) arrives to teach the unbelievers what to do when someone they love becomes one of the undead.
The second half of the ballet deal with the effort by Dracula (Wei-Qiang Zhang) to take Mina (CindyMarie Small) away from her intended, Jonathan Harker (Johnny A. Wright), and the flight back to Castle Dracula. But if Lucy is the pivotal character in the first half the film, and Birthwhistle's performance is the most thrilling in the ballet, then it clearly all comes down to Dracula in the second half. The vampire's final fate will certainly strike a chord with those aware of the more perverse habits of the historical Vlad the Impaler, who served as the inspiration for Stoker's Dracula. Those familiar with the story will have no trouble following along, but the copious use of title cards fill in any and all gaps. Fortunately they become much less frequent in the ballet's climax, where dance becomes the vital medium of expression.
Visually, "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary" is as fascinating as Abel Gance's "Napoleon" or Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane." Maddin shot the film in black & white on both 16mm and Super 8 stock, used special effects and aging techniques to simulate the grainy and shadowy images of silent films, and tinted frames various colors to accent items. The inside of Dracula's cape and most of the blood in the film appears bright red. Those familiar with the standard techniques of silent films (wipes, iris shots, soft framing, intertitles, tinting) will find that Maddin employs them and then turns them into something more suited to his own tastes (you can listen to the director's audio commentary to get insights into all the strange and weird things he did in putting Mark Godden's ballet on screen, such as using Bram Stoker's text as much as possible for the titles and chocolate syrup for the blood in the opening credits).
Maddin avoids sustained shots; there must be at least a dozen cuts in every single minute of this 75-minute film. When you check out the Behind the Scenes segment on the DVD you will see what Winnepig audiences saw on stage with this version of "Dracula," but there are relatively few moments that are recognizable of that production in the film. Shooting the footage was just the first part of the artistic process for Maddin. Fans of the silent cinema may well be more impressed with this film than devotees of the ballet or those who like vampire movies.
Not surprisingly the emphasis is on the eroticism inherent in the story that is as important as the horror. The sets for the convent and Dracula's castle invoke the height of German Expressionism, but the soft shapes and curves of the walls also emphasize the sensual. All of this serves as a setting for the sensual dancing. The coy sensuality of Lucy and her beaus because charged with a more overt sexuality when she becomes a vampire, while Dracula's coolness only serves to heighten his raw sexual energy. Fans of the ballet will probably not appreciation all of the hoops Maddin makes them jump through to watch the dancing here, but I think fans of Dracula will really enjoy this bold twist on the old tale.
Since this film is essentially a filmed ballet, all of the acting is done in mime. As a result, the film is given an almost silent film (complete with sub-titles) atmosphere to the whole proceedings. Zhang Wei-Qiang makes for a romantic, yet imperiously aloof Dracula, while CindyMarie Small is just the right blend of innocence and desire as Mina. However, it is Tara Birtwhistle's Lucy and David Maroni's Van Helsing that truly capture the attention. Birtwhistle exudes both playfulness and raw sexuality in her stunning portrayal, while Maroni's intense bearing makes him a formidable foe for Dracula.
The entire ensemble does wonderful work and the film goes at a good clip at 74 minutes. However, the film's first half is probably more interesting to non-ballet fans as most of the special effects and wild staging seem to take place here. The DVD has some wonderful extras including some radio interviews with the producer and director, a Canadian news story about the film, photos, and an insightful commentary by Maddin.
For fans of ballet, Dracula, or both, this film is definitely a must-see and something that I would highly recommend.
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